New cultural chief of Leeds 2023 revealed

The chief of the Leeds 2023 cultural festival has been revealed as Kully Thiarai, a former artistic director of Leeds theatre company Red Ladder, the first artistic director of Cast at Doncaster and the woman currently in charge of National Theatre Wales.

Tuesday, 18th June 2019, 12:04 pm
NEW APPOINTMENT: Kully Thiarai. PIC: Dan Green

Ms Thiarai has been announced as the creative director of Leeds 2023, an international cultural festival which rose from the ashes of the scuppered bid to be named European Capital of Culture. The bid was torpedoed by the European Commission when it declared UK cities ineligible for the title following the Brexit referendum.

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The city, which was a favourite to be named European Capital of Culture before all bids were judged ineligible by the European Commission, announced that it would defiantly continue with its plans for a year of cultural activity in 2023 despite the setback.

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As creative director, Ms Thiarai will lead hundreds of other organisers and thousands of artists in a year which she says will transform the city and the region.

“You only have to look at the impact of European Capital of Culture on Liverpool, the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the year Hull spent as UK City of Culture, to see the effect of people coming together, working together and being galvanised to take part in something,” she said.

“The resonance of something like Hull being named City of Culture is enormous and has a value that is incredibly powerful. That is what Leeds 2023 will create.”

Ms Thiarai is well known in the Yorkshire arts sector, having worked here since the early 1990s. In 1994 she was appointed artistic director of Leeds theatre company Red Ladder before moving to Contact Theatre in Manchester in 1998.

She went on to work on large scale theatrical projects before in 2012 being appointed executive and artistic director of Cast in Doncaster, a new £22m venue for the city. She is currently the artistic director of National Theatre Wales, one of the most high profile arts jobs in the UK.

She said: “It would take something really quite special to entice me to leave National Theatre Wales.

“Creative director of Leeds 2023 is that something special. A number of consultants spoke to me about the job and I was really impressed that the city council and all the other partners, having had the knockback from the European Commission, were committed to making culture so central to Leeds. When I saw the commitment from all the different partners and I saw how significant it was and how transformative it was going to be, that was what convinced me that this was a job worth coming back to Yorkshire for.”

Leeds has undergone something of a transformation in recent years with regards to how culture is viewed. A city that once put finance way ahead of the arts now plays host to the annual Light Night weekend and was the heart of the Yorkshire Festival in 2014, instigated by Welcome to Yorkshire to celebrate culture in the county.

In preparing for the bid to become European Capital of Culture 2023, partners from across the city came together for the first time, from small arts studios, to public relations experts, to big venues. When the bid collapsed, it didn’t take long for the partners to agree to forge ahead with their plans, regardless of European money.

Ms Thiarai said: “It was something extraordinary that happened when the city decided it was going to go ahead anyway. I’m thrilled that I’m going to play a part in the journey.”


1991-1994: Freelance facilitator and arts worker.

1994-1998: Artistic director of Red Ladder Theatre Company, a radical company that worked with young people with little access to the arts.

1998-1999: Artistic director and CEO of Contact Theatre, Manchester where she planned the programme following a £5m redevelopment.

2001-2007: Artistic director of the Leicester Haymarket Theatre.

2012-2016: First artistic director of Cast at Doncaster, where she directed shows including Kes, Cinderella, Aladdin and led the organisation.

2016-2019: National Theatre Wales, where she was the first British Asian to be appointed artistic director of a national company.