Darren Henley: EU setback no bar to Leeds culture dream

THERE are exciting times ahead for Leeds which is committed to becoming a cultural capital, official title or not.

Leeds is still committed to becoming a cultural capital.

While we at the Arts Council shared the city’s disappointment at the European Commission’s decision last autumn to remove the UK from the Capital of Culture programme, we were impressed by the decision to carry on with the ambitions outlined in Leeds’s 2023 bid.

And we are committed to supporting the city in those ambitions, putting art and culture at the heart of everything it does.

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The 2023 document set out a new 12-year cultural strategy, one which was created not only in collaboration with artists and arts organisations but, crucially, also with local communities and children and young people.

I am regularly to be found in Leeds, not least because the Arts Council’s Yorkshire team led by director Pete Massey is based in the city.

Recently, I was privileged to sit in on rehearsals at Red Ladder Theatre Company.

I also met the creative brains behind Invisible Flock, one of several new National Portfolio Organisations and a great example of art and tech coming together to generate work that is unique, innovative and inspiring.

Great work is already taking place at every level across the city, and the challenge now is to build on that.

We have worked with the Leeds arts community over a number of years, assisting it in strengthening its infrastructure, and we have supported the city’s cultural plans through Arts Council programmes such as Ambition for Excellence and Grants for the 

I have seen some brilliant productions at West Yorkshire Playhouse over the past few years.

And, thanks to National Lottery players, it’s received £6.6m from the Arts Council towards its £14m refurbishment, while Northern Dance has been given £750,000 to support the creation of the Leeds Dance Partnership.

Art and culture can have a transformative effect, bringing opportunities and tangible benefits that are both artistic and economic to a place and to its people. You only have to look at the creative energy and sense of collective pride which made Hull’s City of Culture year such a success, and before that Liverpool’s game-changing year as European Capital of Culture, to see the result of placing art and culture at the core of city life.

But you don’t need an official title to achieve this. And I applaud Leeds’s plan for a six-year £35m cultural investment programme between now and 2023, when it will hold a 12-month celebration of the city’s diverse cultures.

So how are we at the Arts Council supporting this ambition?

Over the next four years we are investing more than £86m in a total of 24 organisations in the Leeds area, including Opera North, Leeds Museums and Galleries, the fascinating Thackray Medical Museum and East Street Arts which runs the Arts Hostel, surely the most artistic place you can stay in the city.

There is also a continued commitment to Leeds’s position as a centre of excellence for dance, with support for Northern School of Contemporary Dance, along with companies creating innovative work including Northern Ballet, Balbir Singh Dance Company and Phoenix Dance Theatre.

In addition we have also committed £750,000 through our Ambition for Excellence programme towards the exciting plans for the Yorkshire Sculpture International, taking place over the summer of 2019 and again in 2023, and which will cement the county as a world centre for sculpture.

And we have given an £85,500 increase in funding to Slung Low theatre company to create the Leeds People’s Theatre project which will develop spectacular outdoor performances involving casts from the city’s communities in both 2020 and 2023.

The Arts Council will continue to work closely with Leeds City Council to ensure as many of its future cultural ambitions as possible can be realised.

I am also particularly excited by the role played by higher-education institutions here in growing the city’s reputation on the national and international stage.

These are exciting times for the city, and I watch with a real sense of anticipation as it moves forward.

Darren Henley is chief executive of Arts Council England