Why access to free art and culture is so important to places like Harrogate - Sharon Canavar

This Friday and Saturday night, Harrogate will be lit up like never before as it hosts a dazzling new light festival with lighting beams, projections and soundscapes transforming 10 popular landmarks across the town centre.

For visitors to Harrogate it will be an opportunity to come and enjoy a world class cultural experience in one of Yorkshire’s most historic towns, and for locals it’s a chance to see their town in a completely different light (quite literally).

Beam is the spa town’s biggest and most ambitious festival of its kind and, just as importantly, it’s free to everyone. Harrogate International Festivals wouldn’t have been able to produce such an event without the support of North Yorkshire Council, Visit North Yorkshire, Harrogate Business Improvement District (BID), the Future 50 Fund and, of course, James Bawn, the lighting designer and creative brains behind the installation.

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It’s something for the people of Harrogate to be proud of, but it comes at a time of growing uncertainty for the UK’s arts and culture sector. Only last week, Birmingham City Council signed off plans to slash all of its funding to arts and culture organisations over the next two years after effectively declaring itself bankrupt.

A previous event in Harrogate in 2019 celebrating the town's spa heritage. PIC: Richard MaudeA previous event in Harrogate in 2019 celebrating the town's spa heritage. PIC: Richard Maude
A previous event in Harrogate in 2019 celebrating the town's spa heritage. PIC: Richard Maude

The Chancellor Jeremy Hunt did at least use his budget speech to announce £10m of funding for culture projects in the West Midlands region which will be matched by the combined authority. But what happens when, as it surely will, local councils in other towns and cities in dire financial straits elsewhere in the country are forced to cut their arts and culture funding?

These are challenging times for anyone working in the industry and it’s only likely to get tougher in the next few years. And yet we know how important all this is. A 2023 survey by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) found that 90 per cent of UK adults had engaged with the arts at least once during the previous 12 months.

This doesn’t come as a surprise. We know that art and culture entertains, stimulates, amuses and inspires us in a way nothing else really can. We know, too, that it’s good for our wellbeing. Numerous studies have shown that engaging with arts, culture and creativity is good for us, whether it’s the therapeutic benefits of music among dementia patients, or the way dance can relieve stress and anxiety.

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There is greater appreciation and understanding of how culture enriches our lives, but that doesn’t mean we all have equal access to it. At one time, Harrogate was seen as having the best art and culture between London and Edinburgh back when people flocked here to ‘take the waters’, long before the regeneration of the big northern cities.

The cultural clout of places like Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester has grown significantly during the past 25 years and with it has come impressive new venues that can host major cultural events and festivals. This is great for their profile but we need to make sure that people who live in our towns aren’t left behind.

The perception of Harrogate is of a fabulously wealthy place, but there are pockets of poverty in the town that get masked by the relative wealth of the area. Which is why it’s important that free cultural activities are easily accessible to those who perhaps can’t afford a trip to a big concert in Leeds, or a night out at the theatre in York. If an event is happening within walking distance of where you live, or is a short bus ride away, you’re much more likely to go along to it – especially at a time when most of us are watching what we spend.

We hear a lot these days about people feeling disenfranchised politically, but this can extend to art and culture – the idea that it’s not for someone like them. The beauty of free outdoor events, whether it’s a concert, art display or a light festival, is they help foster a sense of pride and belonging in where you live. They also allow you to reach a wider audience and engage with people who perhaps aren’t exposed to art or culture on a regular basis, particularly younger generations.

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There’s an economic benefit too – they boost the retail and hospitality sectors and help drive the local economy. Hull’s tenure as UK City of Culture in 2017 had a huge impact, not only casting the city in a positive light but attracting around five million people and £220m of investment. It’s why people in Bradford are so excited about their city taking on the mantle next year.

Art and culture contribute around £10.8bn a year to the UK economy, according to Arts Council England, but this is about more than just money. Theatres, museums, galleries, libraries and live events are the beating heart of our communities, whether we’re talking about Barnsley, Hull, Wakefield, or Ripon.

I hope people from all these places visit Harrogate this weekend. And if they do, I hope they leave with a smile on their face and a spring in their step, having enjoyed an entertaining evening – because that’s what top class art and culture is all about.

Sharon Canavar is chief executive of Harrogate International Festivals.

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