Leeds 2023: City set to press ahead with plans for year-long arts festival after Brussels snub

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The show must go on – that was the defiant message from Leeds last year after Brussels brought an abrupt halt to its bid to be named European Capital of Culture 2023.

And, just over six months later, the city is proving as good as its word by planning its own year of artistic excellence.

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Leeds City Council’s decision-making executive board will be asked to approve the start of work by a new Leeds Culture Trust when it meets on June 27, it was revealed today.

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Its set of trustees will be drawn from key city stakeholders such as the council, universities and the private sector and will include individuals with local, national and international cultural expertise.

They will be responsible for overseeing an inspirational programme of cultural activity in Leeds during the course of 2023 plus a series of events in the build-up to the year itself.

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Civic chiefs believe the festival will deliver many of the benefits that would have come with European Capital of Culture status, raising the city’s profile and giving people in every part of Leeds improved access to the arts.

They also say that, freed from the constraints of the original competition’s rules, Leeds now has scope to widen its aspirations for 2023 – for example by including a major sporting-themed event in the programme.

And yesterday, 200 days since Michel Barnier and co dropped their Brexit ban bombshell, council leader Coun Judith Blake told of her hopes for an extravaganza that should have the power to touch lives throughout the city.

Speaking exclusively to the Yorkshire Evening Post, she said: “Hosting a world-class cultural festival is going to make a big impact right across all our communities.

“This isn’t going to be a festival held behind closed doors, but one which will deliver celebrations and new experiences in our parks, streets and stages from Otley to Robin Hood, and from Morley to Boston Spa and everywhere in between.”

The council says it has been hugely encouraged by the ongoing backing of the private sector for its plans.

All but one of 15 corporate partners that threw their weight behind the stalled European bid have said they are ready to help fund the city’s revised 2023 vision.

Supporters include Leeds Bradford International Airport, Arup, Keepmoat, Turner & Townsend, Bruntwood, Yorkshire Building Society and Yorkshire Bank.

Funding could also come from the Arts Council and other lottery cash distributors as well as philanthropists, foundations and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport.

Assuming the Leeds Culture Trust proposal gets the green light later this month, it is expected a board and trustees will be in place by late autumn, with senior staff appointments to follow.

Cluny Macpherson, the council’s chief officer for culture and sport, yesterday told the YEP that the Trust would choose the exact make-up of the 2023 programme but stressed that it would include some of the 40-plus projects outlined in the city’s European bid book.

Initiatives already taking shape include Yorkshire Sculpture International, a new collaborative scheme that is due to be delivered by Leeds Art Gallery, The Henry Moore Institute, The Hepworth Wakefield and Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 2019 and again in 2023.

The Holbeck-based Slung Low theatre company also has plans in the pipeline for huge outdoor shows featuring hundreds of “citizen performers” and a core of professional artists under the banner of Leeds Peoples Theatre.

Mr Macpherson said: “The bid generated a lot of creative ideas and over 40 projects were included in our bid book.

“It’s fantastic to see that the process galvanised so many artists, who are already moving ahead with some of these under their own steam, showing that passion for culture and art is well and truly alive.

“We’re also continuing to support a number of these projects under the revised plans for Leeds 2023.”

Phoenix Dance Theatre artistic director Sharon Watson, who headed up Leeds’s bid for European Capital of Culture status, is also confident that the 2023 festival will showcase the very best of what the city’s arts scene has to offer.

She told the YEP: “The bid for European Capital of Culture galvanised the city’s communities, businesses and education sectors, the commitment to continue remains strong and the effects of the bidding process can still be felt today.

“The fruits of this can be seen in Phoenix Dance’s upcoming collaboration with Opera North, a conversation inspired by the bidding process.

“Leeds 2023 will enable the city to not only continue the programming of internationally relevant artistic work, but will lead important conversations and influence our society on a global scale.”

Leeds was one of five places in the UK that submitted bids in October last year to be named European Capital of Culture 2023.

A month later, and just a few days before shortlisting interviews were due to be held in London, the director general in the European Commission’s Education and Culture Department wrote to the UK Government stating that “the participation of the United Kingdom in the European Capital of Culture [process] will not be possible”.

Council bosses said at the time that they had only pressed ahead with the bid after being reassured by advice from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport about the potential impact of the Brexit vote result on the competition.

The cost of Leeds’s bid has been estimated at just over £800,000, with around £145,000 coming from the council.

The other UK bidders were Dundee, Belfast/Derry, Nottingham and Milton Keynes.

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