Next year’s Grand Depart Cultural Festival will be one of the biggest arts events ever staged in Yorkshire. Its artistic director Maria Bota spoke to Chris Bond.
WHEN it was ann-ounced that the world’s greatest cycle race, the Tour de France, was coming to Yorkshire next year, the reaction was one of jubilation mixed with a sprinkling of disbelief.
We all know how wonderful the Broad Acres are but there’s long been a feeling that the rest of the world has been slow to catch on – old stereotypes can sometimes prove difficult to lay to rest. Perhaps now, though, the penny has finally dropped with Yorkshire beating the likes of Rome and Paris to be crowned Europe’s top tourist spot at the World Travel Awards this week.
It’s a welcome feather in county’s cap, but it’s the visit of the Tour de France that has really captured people’s imagination. The fact that the race was coming here made news around the world appearing in the Washington Post, Japan Today, the Bangkok Post and even the Winnipeg Free Press.
As well as being big news it’s also big business, with estimates suggesting that hosting the Grand Départ could be worth around £100m to Yorkshire’s economy. Between two and three million visitors are expected to flock here next summer when the peleton sets off from Leeds - the event’s official host city - on July 5.
But they won’t just be able to enjoy a sporting spectacle. For the first time in the tour’s history a 100-day Tour de France Yorkshire Cultural Festival is being held in the run up to the race. The £2m festival, including £1m from Arts Council England, is seen as an opportunity to show the world the cultural delights that Yorkshire has to offer.
Maria Bota is the festival’s newly appointed artistic director and the person tasked with making it happen. Funding for the festival, which gets underway at the end of March, was only agreed in June meaning there’s less than seven months to make this ambitious project happen. So no pressure then.
Bota has only been in her new job four weeks but speaking from Welcome to Yorkshire’s HQ in Leeds she seems, outwardly at least, unfazed by the challenge. “It’s an amazing opportunity when you think of all the people that watch the Tour de France. So to have a festival which is very much about transforming people and places is a great opportunity to showcase the best of Yorkshire to an international audience and to visitors coming to the county,” she says. “I think it’s a dream marriage.”
These days arts festivals are run almost like businesses and in the current economic climate, with funding being squeezed, they have to be if they’re going to survive.
Bota, though, is passionate in her belief that art and culture has the ability to bring people together and has a pretty impressive track record when it comes to orchestrating big cultural events. For the past five years she’s been at the helm of the annual Salisbury Festival, based around 150 events over a 16 day period, and last year she organised a fire garden at Stonehenge as part of the London 2012 Festival.
Bota and the festival organisers are holding a series of events across the county speaking to artists and arts organisations and next week they’re heading to York, Scarborough, Harrogate, Leeds and Hull.
The festival will consist of a series of commissions from big, flagship performances and artworks, to smaller events rooted in local communities, with people being encouraged to pitch in with their own ideas. The deadline for submissions is the middle of next month and the organisers plan to start commissioning projects by the end of November before unveiling the whole programme to the public at the end of January.
They have received hundreds of ideas already and Bota is expecting many more. But what sort of things are we talking about? “It’s all art forms under the sun, music, dance, circus, theatre, land art, visual art, film and photography. It really is very broad because we want everyone to feel they can be involved with the festival.
“I hope we will end up with many more ideas than we can accommodate. But who knows what other ideas and projects might come forward in the future that wouldn’t have happened without this festival,” she says.
The race itself will cover a large swathe of Yorkshire going through places like Ripon, York, Harrogate and Sheffield, but some areas will be well away from the action, particularly over towards the coast and the concern is that people living in say Hull and Scarborough won’t feel part of the celebrations. It’s something Bota wants to address.
“This is a celebration of Yorkshire, the whole county, it’s Yorkshire welcoming the world,” she says. “So we’re looking for people to pitch ideas, they could be for huge events that would attract national and international visitors, right through to people looking at dressing their town in yellow as the route goes through.
“We want these commissions to be taking place across the county, that’s very important and that’s why we’re going out to places like Hull and Bradford and all over the county, so that people know this is a celebration for the whole of Yorkshire.”
She says there are three key strands to the festival, the first of which is “true grit.” This reflects Yorkshire and it’s a quality that cyclists need and there are many ways you can represent this through storytelling, as well as theatre and dance. So we’re looking for work that shows this along with skill and determination.”
The second strand is Yorkshire “en fete”, based around a celebration of the landscape and cycling. “It could be something like how to make a topiary bike, it’s about playing with ideas based around bicycles, recycling and the environment.” The third is “World-class Yorkshire”, which is about promoting the region’s art and arts organisations to an international audience.
Another theme they’re keen to explore is the notion of “my first bike”, something that most of us can relate to. “It’s a vivid childhood memory, it’s one that Mark Cavendish will have and it’s one that all the great cyclists will have,” says Bota. “I remember seeing my little sister on her first bike, she didn’t know how to work the brakes and her legs used to fly over the back and she would jump off before it hit the wall, which is much harder than learning how to use the brakes.”
For Bota, her new role has brought her back to Yorkshire where she lived for 10 years while working for the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. “It’s special for me to be able to make a festival in a landscape that I’ve spent years exploring and it’s important that we make the most of this opportunity.”
Sport and the arts aren’t always the cosiest of bedfellows but Bota believes the cultural festival will dovetail with the sporting spectacle. “There’s going to be a huge legacy from the race being here and I think there will be a legacy from the festival being part of that.”
But the festival won’t just revolve around cycling. “I think we’ll have lots of ideas that revolve around cycling and that’s great because this is partly about celebrating the race, but it’s also about celebrating the great art being produced here in Yorkshire. We don’t want people to squeeze their ideas into lycra if the idea doesn’t want to wear it.”
Those organising events will be able to register them on the festival’s website and Bota believes it’s the involvement of local communities that will make next year’s event memorable. “At the end of this what we want to see is the arts in Yorkshire being more widely celebrated. Eleven months from now I’ll be gone and when I look back that’s what I want to see.”
She hopes this will be the legacy of what is a unique festival. “We are breaking new ground. It’s the first time that a cultural festival’s been run in this way alongside the Tour de France and it’s happening in Yorkshire, and I think that’s amazing.”
* The Grand Depart Cultural Festival runs from March 27 to July 6. For more information or to put forward an idea go to letour.yorkshire.com/artsfestival