Can the arts solve the north/south divide?

Author Lee Child with Sarah Millican

Author Lee Child with Sarah Millican - Credit: Archant

Arts festivals can enhance our quality of life not just culturally but also financially. Sharon Canavar explains

Can the arts solve the north/south divide? Central government spending per head on culture in London was nearly 15 times greater than the rest of England in 2012/13. Despite this, we punch above our cultural weight.

Festivals have proven economic impact. Liverpool as a Capital of Culture shows how festivals can transform a city’s fortunes. It had an estimated impact of £800m, creating a virtuous cycle of more regeneration.

One commentator argued rather than improve links to London from the north with HS2) we should improve links to other northern regions. This could boost our infrastructure, pool resources and help us compete with London, rather than travel faster to it. That’s a can of new worms, but the concept of collaboration is one we’re embracing in North Yorkshire. Festivals like Harrogate, Grassington, Swaledale and Coastival keep alive a vibrant scene in rural regions. Access to the arts improves quality of life for residents, but also attracts visitors. The tourist economy is crucial; smaller villages like Grassington depend on it for survival.

Despite the imbalance, we can (and do) compete. Harrogate International Festivals is approaching its 50th anniversary. During that half a century, our relatively small arts organisation has been acclaimed as the North of England’s leading arts festival by The Times. It has created the biggest crime writing festival in the world. The majority of attendees travel from outside our region - London, Europe, Australia. In 2012, we launched Harrogate History Festival, already set for phenomenal growth, and with a focus on world-class festival and events underpinned by a year-round outreach programme, our diversity and partnerships are our strengths.

Partnering with businesses, such as Theakstons, has taken the name of Harrogate (and Theakstons) around the world. We made a short film on our website, interviewing the likes of JK Rowling’s agent, extolling the virtues of our town. The world-conquering author Lee Child praises our world class festival. Lauren Beukes, whose novel is being filmed by Leonardo DiCaprio’s company, gushes that Harrogate was the top festival on her global wish list.

Imagine what we could achieve with a northern alliance?

North Yorkshire Key Festivals, now known as Festivals North, offers the benefits of collaboration for hard-pushed festival organisers, while audiences get a feast of opportunities. The aim? To make North Yorkshire a destination for music, literature and entertainment, with the magnificent backdrop of the Yorkshire Dales, seaside and historic market towns.

It takes funds, organisation and a lot of determination to keep festivals alive. Less than two per cent of Harrogate Festivals income is from the public sector. Importantly, they need audiences. Most can’t afford expensive travel and hotels to experience culture in London. We shouldn’t have to. But your festival is nothing without you.

We hope you’ll join us. Be inspired by literary greats, waltz in the Spiegeltent, take a picnic blanket to the Big Screen, or step out for a sophisticated evening with world-famous orchestras. Last year, we had an economic impact of £8.2m with a 90,000-strong audience. With your support, we can make our 50th one to remember, and make sure our children and grandchildren won’t have to travel to London to be inspired.

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Sharon Canavar is chief executive of Harrogate International Festivals