A look at the arts and culture scene in Leeds
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Do outsiders recognise how creatively dynamic Leeds is? Perhaps not, says Tony Greenway
It seems like a stupid thing to say out loud (not that it’s ever stopped me before), but here goes anyway: there is a LOT going on in Leeds. How’s that for a statement of the bloomin’ obvious? Business, infrastructure development, retail, food and drink, sport, music, museums, nightlife — it’s a place that absolutely fizzes with energy. Yes, Leeds has its problems like every urban centre. But anyone who lives there, works there, or went to university there, realises that it’s still one of the greatest cities in the UK.
Take its luminous arts and culture scene, for example. It’s the home of Leeds Playhouse, the North’s flagship theatre, now undergoing a multi-million pound refurbishment programme; leading national opera company Opera North, which is well on the way to finding the funds for an £18 million redevelopment of its buildings; plus award-winning touring ballet company Northern Ballet, and acclaimed contemporary dance outfit, Phoenix Dance.
Then there’s the Leeds Festival, one of the largest live rock and pop music festivals in the country (The 1975 and Foo Fighters headline this year); the Leeds International Concert Season, which never seems to pause for breath; various ultra-creative, must-see theatre companies including Red Ladder, Slung Low and Tutti Fruitti; a plethora of museums and historic houses and, since 2013, its own music arena. Every big city has to have one of those.
Leeds aims to become a northern production hub, too. It’s where the Northern Film School is based and, last year, Channel 4 announced that it is moving its national headquarters from London to Leeds, which understandably has the council rubbing its hands with glee.
All of which is great. So why do I have the nagging feeling that, despite all of this, outsiders don’t always recognise Leeds’ creative pulling power or give it the cultural kudos it deserves? Other cities in the North seem to steal its artistic thunder too readily.
Naturally, some people will say that this is the sour grapes attitude of a typical chip-on-the-shoulder Yorkshireman and tell me to stop grumbling. Two things about that, though: one, I’m not a Yorkshireman. And two, ask the average person in, say, London or Birmingham or Glasgow or Bristol to name a creatively vibrant, exciting, well-known city in the North of England and they are very likely to say Liverpool or Manchester first, then Newcastle and possibly Hull, which is still basking in the glow of its UK City of Culture year. They might get around to mentioning Leeds if you prod them long enough. Of course, the city WOULD have had a large international spotlight shone on it, had it become the 2023 European Capital of Culture. Unfortunately, its bid was scuppered by Brexit, which was a big blow.
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Another problem could be a lack of joined up thinking among Leeds’ cultural community. This seems to be particularly prevalent on the music scene, which is why a new organisation has been launched called Music: Leeds, which will function as ‘a single, centralised contact point’ support Leeds as ‘a world-class city for culture... contribute to the city’s identity as a music hub, boost its international profile and attract visitors’. Closer collaboration is the name of its game. Meanwhile, Music: Leeds launchpad initiative ‘will provide the opportunity for emerging artists in the Leeds and West Yorkshire area to benefit from industry advice, mentoring, creative development, performance opportunities, recording and public releases of their music’.
Simon Rix from Kaiser Chiefs thinks the organisation is a good idea. ‘The music scene in Leeds has always been something special,’ he says. ‘It’s a big city with lots of scenes and collectives. It’s great to see Music: Leeds launch, to help see the city fulfil its massive potential by supporting new talent coming through and making existing links more tangible and concrete... This is another platform to help boost the city’s creative resources and provide a platform for galvanising the city’s creative industries musically and beyond.’
The director of Music: Leeds is Sam Nicholls — aka Whiskas — who knows a thing or two about music and culture. He once created a promotions company which worked with artists such as Arctic Monkeys, The Subways and The Pigeon Detectives; then, as a musician and songwriter, tasted success with his own band, ¡Forward, Russia! He’s also worked as a record label director and A&R man, and is now a senior lecturer at Leeds Beckett University. ‘Leeds is an interesting city in lots of different ways,’ he says. ‘It’s a large city and part of a large area, and doesn’t necessarily have the same attributes as a Manchester or a Liverpool, because it’s sitting next to other strong cities and towns in the region such as Bradford, Halifax and Wakefield.’
He acknowledges that the music scene in Leeds has always been fantastic, if not necessarily nationally recognised. ‘There are successful bands, successful musicians and successful initiatives, be it the Kaiser Chiefs or the Leeds International Piano Competition. But there is a lack of foundation within the city which makes it difficult for musicians or artists to find the best available support. It’s too easy for them to exist within pockets. Saying that, this isn’t an issue that’s unique to Leeds. It’s the case in a lot of cities. That’s why there’s a large movement throughout the UK — and the world, actually — to provide a greater framework for music to grow within a city environment.’
Those taking part in the Music: Leeds forums include everyone from musicians, artists and DJs to larger national organisations. ‘It’s an opportunity for everyone to come together and have like-minded conversations,’ says Nicholls. ‘It’s not music standing out on its own. It’s part of the broader culture strategy for Leeds 2023.’
Ooh, yes, about that: alongside everything else, you have to give Leeds credit for sheer bloody-mindedness. Even though its bid to host the European Capital of Culture was unceremoniously shelved, Leeds still plans to have its own year-long international cultural festival in 2023 anyway.
Nicholls likens Leeds city centre to ‘a fizzy bottle waiting to burst’ and says the best thing about the whole area is the independent spirit of its people, music, and other sectors such as food and drink. Culturally, he’s optimistic about the way things are heading. ‘There are a lot of good conversations happening across different levels now,’ he says. ‘The problem is it can be like driving a steam liner because the city is so big...’