Plans for a Great Exhibition of the North in 2018 have been announced recently to much fanfare. But what is it all about? Chris Bond spoke to Sir Gary Verity to find out more.
You’ve got to hand it to the Victorians, they certainly knew how to put on a show.
Take the Great Exhibition of 1851 for instance. Driven by Prince Albert, who was keen to get one over on the French after the success of their Industrial Exposition seven years earlier, it pulled out all the stops.
Its show-stopping centrepiece was a specially commissioned ‘crystal palace’, the first prefabricated building of its kind, in London’s Hyde Park. By the time the exhibition finished more than a quarter of the entire British population had attended, keen to marvel at the array of extraordinary exhibits including the world’s biggest diamond, a carriage drawn by kites and furniture made out of coal.
One visitor was moved to write: “Its grandeur does not consist in one thing, but in the unique assemblage of all things. Whatever human industry has created you find there. It seems as if only magic could have gathered this mass of wealth from all the ends of the earth.” That visitor was Charlotte Bronte.
If the mid-19th Century felt like a time of miracle and wonder, then the same goes for the embryonic years of the 21st Century with all its new realities. Which is perhaps why the announcement earlier this month of plans for a Great Exhibition of the North caused such a flurry of interest and, dare I say, excitement.
Towns and cities across the North East, North West and Yorkshire are being urged to bid for the chance to host the government-funded exhibition, which will celebrate the best of art, culture and design across the North of England.
Bids for the event, which is expected to last a couple of months in the summer of 2018, have to be submitted by the end of June this year with the winning venue due to be announced in early autumn.
Sir Gary Verity, the chief executive of Welcome to Yorkshire and the mastermind behind the region’s hosting of the Tour de France in 2014, was appointed last year to head the Great Exhibition board.
He’s given the exhibition the working title The Economy of Tomorrow, so don’t expect flat caps and whippets. “It’s about celebrating the great work that happens here now and also about looking forwards rather than celebrating what happened one, or two hundred years ago,” he says.
The exhibition is, as it says on the tin, all about the north. “If you imagine a map of the UK, then draw a line broadly under Sheffield and it’s everything in between there and the Scottish borders.”
Verity says the exhibition will have two main elements. The first will involve a fixed exhibition in the chosen town or city that will include a cultural quarter, an arts quarter and a design quarter. “It has to be somewhere that you can go for a day, either on a school trip, or on your own, or with your family or mates, and tour round the exhibition.
“We’ve not been prescriptive as to exactly what that should look like, it’s really for the towns or cities to decide. But it must be free. The whole point is that it will be accessible to everybody.”
It also has to have the wow factor. “I hope that wherever this ends up being held people are blown away by it. For me one of the tests of that is how many repeat visitors it gets. We want people to say, ‘I must come back again’.
“If you think about a great piece of theatre, or a great art exhibition, or a great movie, the best ones are those you keep going back to even though you’ve seen them before - and that must be a sign of success.”
The question of who will host the exhibition is already proving a hot, and perhaps contentious, topic. Verity has become as synonymous with Yorkshire as Wensleydale cheese and it’s been suggested that if somewhere like Sheffield is chosen he’ll be accused of favouritism, while if it goes to Manchester it’s fair to say he wouldn’t be flavour of the month in Leeds.
“One wag said to me ‘the only place you can put this to avoid civil war breaking out across the north of England again is the farmhouse on the middle of the M62.’”
Joking aside, it is a conundrum for Verity and his board, though he insists it all boils down to who has the best bid. “I’ve had no pressure put on me by Ministers or anybody else that I’ve spoken to in Whitehall or Westminster as to where it should be. I wouldn’t have taken the gig on if it had any Machiavellian strings attached.
“I don’t have a preference for a particular place, what I do have a preference for is for it to be awesome. It must be something that people are blown away by and you’ve got more chance of achieving that if you’ve got a coalition of the willing involved.”
This is where he envisages the second aspect of the exhibition coming into play with the best of art, culture and design events right across the North being showcased during the summer of 2018.
“I would like to see one weekend where we persuade every design business - from Whitehaven down to Liverpool and across to Hull and up to Berwick-upon-Tweed and anywhere in between - to open their doors and invite people in and talk about what they do. That’s never been done before but it would be a great thing to be able to do,” he says.
“We had a glimpse of that when we did the first Yorkshire Festival. 800,000 people attended the different events, but 50,000 of them had never been to an arts event in their lives before and hopefully a large proportion of those will have been inspired to do it again.”
Critics might say that an exhibition, however impressive, is just a token political gesture and doesn’t address the underlying economic gulf between the North and South.
But Verity disagrees. “Successive governments over the decades have said we need to rebalance the economy and despite the best efforts of many well-intentioned people, the gap has probably got bigger.
“So things like the Grand Depart, the International Festival For Business in Liverpool and the Great Exhibition of the North, these are really important in shouting about the success that’s happening here right now.”
Verity also believes the additional legacy funding will be key to the exhibition’s long term impact. “Often after big events it then just fizzles out and we’ve seen that before, but I think as a country we’ve learnt about legacy. If you look at the London Olympics and the Tour de France we’ve started to realise that,” he says.
“I’ve never known anything unite Yorkshire like the Tour de France did. That wasn’t just about whether you were on the route or not, the whole county got behind that and I hope again in 2018 in terms of art, culture and design this is something the whole of the North of England can celebrate and say, ‘we don’t just do some of the best work in the UK, we do some of the best work in the world,’ and that could be a galvanising moment.”
Show us what you’ve got
Towns and cities across Yorkshire are being urged to bid for the chance to host the Great Exhibition of the North during the summer of 2018.
The competition to host the exhibition is open to towns and cities in the North-West, North-East and Yorkshire. Bids have to be submitted by the end of June this year with the winning venue expected to be announced in September.
The Government is funding the exhibition to showcase the “best of art, culture and design across the Northern regions” and is putting £5 million towards the exhibition, with matching private sector funding. There is a further £15 million that will go into a legacy fund.
The idea for a northern exhibition was first floated by Chancellor George Osborne in 2014.