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Where to now for cultural soul of Leeds?

It's 20 years since Antony Gormley's Brick Man was refused planning permission. Arts reporter Nick Ahad on the reverberations of a bad decision.

This is a story of political embarrassment, missed opportunities, how money rules the world and how little we value our culture.

I'm waiting for a phone call from the PR people at Chatsworth House at the minute. The call, hopefully, will tell me that the Peak District National Park Authority's planning committee, meeting around noon today, has made a decision to bring a thrilling work of art to life.

The committee is meeting to decide whether or not to give permission to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire to display Antony Gormley's spectacular Time Horizon in the grounds of their estate.

Time Horizon is an installation which consists of 100 life-size iron figures cast from Gormley's own body, each positioned at the same height above sea level. To achieve this, the statues will be variously put on plinths, or buried in the ground around the estate – if permission is forthcoming today.

The only previous occasion Time Horizon was seen was two years ago at the Italian archaeological site Scolacium.

If given the green light, it will be seen this season at the Chatsworth estate from May 1, and then even more thrillingly in the Austrian Alps, after which there are no further plans to display it elsewhere.

My fingers are crossed – the installation will look spectacular in the grounds of the estate – and anyone with an interest in art in this country should be similarly hopeful.

As we all saw last year when Liverpool's Crosby Beach played host to Another Place, a Gormley work featuring his statues looking out to sea, the sculptor can really draw the crowds. It is thrilling that a piece of installation art, so often a reason for polarity, can bring people together, and bring visitors to a particular place.

The spokespeople for Chatsworth are, at the moment, refusing to be either optimistic or pessimistic about their chances, but it would be a surprise if the National Park Authority doesn't grant the necessary planning permission.

Of course, that is a possibility. Perhaps the powers-that-be will decide they don't want to see the estate littered with these representations of the

artist's body.

It is my view that to do so would be a terrible mistake.

The explanation lies in travelling back to 1988 and a dark day for Leeds, Gormley and the state of arts and culture in one of Yorkshire's major cities. Twenty years ago, Leeds made an extraordinary mistake and decided against allowing Gormley to build the now infamous Brick Man. It would have been a 120ft sculpture built at no cost to the taxpayer on wasteland

in the Holbeck district of

the city.

There are those who argue the decision to say no to the Brick Man precipitated an attitude towards the visual arts in the city which led to the point today where they are under-represented. I would argue it has led to a situation where Leeds is embarrassed by its culture, celebrating only the culture of commerce at the expense of art.

This is not to say that there isn't investment in culture in Leeds. The Grand Theatre is in the middle of a 30m development which has seen a new home built for Opera North, the Cultural Quarter is being developed apace around Quarry Hill, with new plans for a 12m dance centre which will be shared by Phoenix Dance and Northern Ballet Theatre announced recently.

All of these developments are to be applauded, yet Leeds still somehow punches below its weight culturally for a city of its size. Unlike Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle, it has no concert hall, a huge gap in the cultural landscape of the city. But more than that, the city has no focal public art structure.

Kerry Harker is the co-director of Project Space Leeds, an artist-led contemporary art space

in the city centre, and a working artist in the city. Visual arts in the city, I suggest, get the rough end of a raw deal.

"You wouldn't get a lot of argument from any of the artists working in the city about that," says Harker.

"There seems to be the money available for projects for companies like Opera North and Northern Ballet Theatre, but there never seems to be cash for the visual arts. We look at other cities around the North and wonder why they are able to support performance and visual arts equally, yet that doesn't seem to happen

in Leeds."

Playing devil's advocate, I suggest that the 1.9m recently spent on the Leeds City Art Gallery and the creation of the new city museum, opening later this year, in the old Civic Theatre, is a good example of spending on the arts.

"We don't know what's going in the new museum and the art gallery needs more investment," argues Harker. Last year, I was at the city art gallery after the refurbishment took place and Jeremy Lewison, formerly of the Tate, who

was commissioned to

re-hang the gallery after its refurbishment, made it clear that the money was no more than a good start for the art gallery – much more investment was needed.

I would argue it will take a lot more than money to get Leeds out of its current cultural hole.

The Cultural Quarter development mentioned above will see other buildings erected as well as the new home for Phoenix and NBT, among them a hotel adjoining the West Yorkshire Playhouse. One of the people in charge of the Playhouse told me this week that the theatre has a very good relationship with the hotel developers, but off the record it has been suggested that others in the theatre are less than happy that within the next few years the view out of the glass front of the theatre will reveal only a hotel building.

What does all of this have to do with the Brick Man?

Twenty years ago, Leeds was at the start of a new dawn. The city was about to set down a path which would see it become the financial capital of the North. Down this route lay the riches

of the arrival of designer heaven in the shape of the Victoria Quarter and Harvey Nichols. The city stood at a crossroads. If the leaders

of the city council had decided to say yes to the Brick Man back then,

today's financial success would have gone hand

in hand with the city's cultural renaissance.

Instead, finance, retail and commerce sprinted away and the city's cultural life was left wondering in which direction to go.

Twenty years ago, Conservative councillor Richard Hughes-Rowlands said: "If Mr Gormley is talking about it (Brick Man) going somewhere else, my eyes won't exactly be weeping tears."

Mr Gormley did. He went and created the Angel of the North. And we all know what a disaster that has been for Newcastle and Gateshead; a place teeming with people with money – and the houses of culture in which they can spend it.

If the Peak District National Park Authority decides against Gormley's Time Horizon, while a silly move, it won't have the reverberations which are still being felt in Leeds 20 years on.

The city must start valuing its public art and its culture more highly. The development around the Playhouse is great news, but the city cannot rely on commerce to keep it driving forward. The hotel, which will block the view of the Playhouse, is a manifestation of the city's attitude. Culture can be found in the city but we should not be hiding it away behind its financial ambitions.

It's time to sing loud and proud about the city's culture.

HAVE YOUR SAY

Tell us if you agree that Leeds's cultural life needs a boost, or if

you think things are just fine the way they are.

Write to: Culture, Yorkshire Post, Wellington Street, Leeds LS1 1RF. Email: nick.ahad@ypn.co.uk

 
 
 

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