The importance of Leeds 2023 will be what comes after the year of cultural celebration says executive director
The year of culture being planned for Leeds in 2023 will be more about what comes afterwards, rather than the show-stopping events from stage to cinema and even double-decker buses.
In an exclusive interview with Mark Hollander, the executive director of Leeds 2023, he told the Yorkshire Evening Post that 2023 is just the beginning of a cultural legacy that will last in Leeds for generations to come.
Despite Leeds’ bid to be crowned the European Capital of Culture collapsing with Brexit, it was deemed back then as important as ever to continue with plans to shine a spotlight on the city’s already thriving cultural offering and take it to another level.
Over the space of a couple of years Leeds 2023 was formed to celebrate the city’s pop, poetry, sport, sculpture, dance, design, plays in pub car parks and curtains up at the city’s great theatres.
Then the coronavirus pandemic swept across the world and while it may have made the job of Mr Hollander and his executive team - incidentally appointed in March 2020 lockdown set in - a little more difficult, the justification never swerved.
“When COVID hit a lot of the impetus behind Leeds 2023 became more important, the benefit to communities, economy and well-being - all the things that Judith Blake (the then leader of Leeds City Council) had championed as a driver for positive change.
“Nothing changed in terms of the original reasoning for doing a year of culture, it was about recognising the benefits to the community.”
Funding and recruitment may have had to be put on a temporary backburner, but seemingly this has not deterred businesses and sponsors from getting involved and giving Leeds 2023 its backing.
Mr Hollander explained: “Leeds has always paid real attention to its work, not just formal spaces but work that is in places like working men’s clubs. I have seen work in all forms - poetry in the library and everything from mainstream to grass-roots.
“It is interesting, when I first started to engage with businesses, I was worried that big pieces of work that fund things, we might be waiting for, but, the businesses that I spoke to are really interested in work that happens across the communities.
Leeds has always had that (grassroots) and we are trying to shine a light on that by creating an opportunity for work across the region to do things that can’t be done without Leeds 2023.”
It is costing around £30m to stage Leeds 2023, with Leeds City Council being the main funder, putting up in the region of £10m.
According to a recent report, the economic benefits that derive from Leeds 2023 could see a ten per cent increase in visitor numbers versus four per cent without; £114m of extra direct and indirect revenue to the Leeds visitor economy in 2023, rising to just over £140m by 2030; 1,310 new jobs in 2023, rising to 1,620 by 2030 and an anticipated return on investment of 8:1 for West Yorkshire and 6:1 for Leeds.
And while those figures are not to be sniffed at, Mr Hollander says the enrichment benefits are actually “priceless” and will be seen the most in real communities with ordinary people.
It was in-fact, this kind of exposure to cultural opportunity that encouraged Mr Hollander to form his own distinguished career within the arts sector.
He trained in theatre studies at Bretton College in the early 1980s, spent 15 years working as an actor and director in theatre, worked internationally on projects in Sri Lanka, Turkey and Spain, and worked at the BBC and Arts Council England.
His role previous to Leeds 2023 was as Executive Director for Phoenix Dance.
He credits his parents and school encouraging access to music and theatre as a child for all of this.
He said: “For me you can’t put a price on inspiring somebody to engage with culture, potentially have a career or just participate in it.
“I experienced at an early age the joy of art, but, also art and culture can make you think about your life, positively change your experiences. I am very keen on this for children and young people for the same reason.
“This can’t be just about the year - that is just the beginning of the legacy if you like. This is not just about performance and art events, it is about partnership development, opportunity.
“We are trying to give people a cultural life and there are ways we can embed that beyond 2023. It is about transformational change as well as a year of celebration.”
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