The journey started on the 7th January 2014 at Leeds Town Hall when Leeds City Council invited more than 300 stakeholders, representing culture, arts, business, community, third sector and public sector, to debate whether or not Leeds should consider a bid to become European Capital of Culture 2023. The response was overwhelmingly and categorically, yes!
Leeds is a diverse city with many more than 300 voices. In February 2014 a small team of officers at Leeds City Council took a paper to its Executive Board of elected members, requesting permission to undertake a year of conversation centred around the simple question: Should Leeds Bid for European Capital of Culture 2023?
“The meeting expressed almost universal support for Leeds making a bid, and therefore provides a strong mandate to develop this ‘city conversation’ over the next nine months to test support for such a bid further from the broadest range of communities, stakeholders and partners.”
Leeds City Council Executive Board Report, February 2014
Permission was granted.
The city council’s Culture & Sport team created a series of opportunities for people from across Leeds and beyond to share their views. From small focus groups of no more than nine people, presentations at community forums and networking events to large scale social media debates, blogs and opinion pieces across online media platforms, and a pop-up video booth at Breeze Leeds events. Notwithstanding the potential for duplication of audiences, the total potential reach of the conversation was 1,505,731.
This includes conversations with children and young people, older people, the independent culture and arts sector, as well as the major culture and arts institutions in the city and Leeds’ emerging arts scene, the higher education sector, local and regional media, BME and LGBT groups.
“Nine years is not very far away in terms of finishing degrees and getting established. Being European Capital of Culture offers a huge platform for art and creativity. There’s a lot of talent here, and they don’t all go to art college; some of them can’t get in or don’t come from the right background. You can see the talent that goes wasted because of choices people have made in their past. That shouldn’t stop creativity. Everyone has a past.”
Mikkel Uller, Founder Dynamite Project, Seacroft
The response to this simple question covered everything from how accessible events during a host year would need to be and the practicalities of what we would need to do as a city to be worthy of such a title, to the enormity of the opportunity, the galvanising force of such a thing and the chance to nurture and develop a future generation who could lead an artistic programme to rival all European Capitals of Culture.
But it wouldn’t be easy. The conversation was held at a time of large scale public sector cuts in an economy struggling to recover from recession. The city had an out of date Culture Strategy and low-profile in Europe, and there were concerns that the true Leeds identity would be lost in the quest for international recognition of its leading cultural sector whose story is seldom told to a global audience.
European Capital of Culture is a competition among European cities. Throughout the conversations we were asked many times which other cities in the UK were considering a bid. We didn’t know, and when we asked others they didn’t know either, but what they did know was that Leeds was the only city to approach the opportunity in such an open manner seeking to engage with as many as voices as possible before taking the decision.
To follow the conversation in detail as it unfolded, click here.