Yorkshire's arts 'not a luxury' in recovery from pandemic, says Jo Stevens MP

Arts and culture must not be seen as a "luxury" in Yorkshire's recovery from the prolonged shutdown but be placed at centre stage in the region's resurgence, leading organisations and senior politicians believe.

Friday, 7th August 2020, 6:00 am

Jo Stevens MP, Shadow Culture Secretary, told The Yorkshire Post that she was "frustrated" by the pace the Government's response to the sector's plight and said that without swift support for talented members of the region's cultural worker base, it would go elsewhere and decrease - a scenario which would cause "immeasurable harm".

Meanwhile, Leeds 2023, an organisation set up after the city's ban from becoming European Capital of Culture, has implored future West Yorkshire Mayoral candidates to focus on the role that culture can play across the county.

The region's countryside communities are also said to hugely benefit from culture schemes provided by organisations such as Thirsk-based Rural Arts.

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Northern Ballet at the Leeds Grand Theatre. Picture: Tony Johnson.

Ms Stevens said: "This is not a luxury.

"I think the word culture is sometimes seen as a bit of an elitist term but this is integral to the recovery of towns and cities across the country."

It comes amid mounting concern for a national sector that 2019 figures showed was worth £10.8bn a year to the UK economy - more than agriculture - as various Yorkshire cultural organisations such as The Piece Hall Trust in Halifax and York Museums Trust announced potential redundancies.

Venues such as Wakefield Theatre Royal, meanwhile, have said they will not reopen until 2021.

Becky Gee, Curator of Fine Art at York Art Galler,y in the new Harland Miiller exhibition at York Art Gallery. Picture: Gary Longbottom

After weeks of rising anger, the Government last month announced a £1.57bn package to aid the recovery culture, but Arts Council England applications do not open until Monday, with the first round of cash not due to be available until autumn.

Speaking about the role of culture in the region, Ms Stevens said: "I think it says a lot about regional identity and pride in Yorkshire.

"My family lived in Leeds for some years when I was at university. Even then, in the mid- to late-80s, arts and culture was such a massive thing in the city.

"It would be such a disaster, not if just the infrastructure goes, but if the people go elsewhere. It would do immeasurable harm to Yorkshire. Nobody wants to see that."

The Labour MP said that she welcomed the Government's package but criticised the speed it is being delivered at, and has concerns that freelancers in the creative industries may revert to safer employment options, using the example of musicians, some of whom supplement earnings from creative efforts with zero-hours-contract teaching jobs.

"It's very difficult to get those people back. Particularly because it's quite precarious employment," she said.

There are worries that the application criteria for grants provided from the Government's new aid package is unsuitable for the informal working patterns of freelancers.

For example Arts Council England, which is delivering up to £500m of National Lottery funding, asks applicant organisations to be registered with official bodies such as Companies House, the Charity Commission or be a community interest company, and be able to provide "at least one year’s independently certified or audited financial statements".

Limited companies and arts co-operatives will also be excluded from support.

Ms Stevens is worried that there is a "big emphasis on buildings, not people".

As West Yorkshire moves towards devolution, Mayoral candidates will be drawing priority lists for their campaigns.

Abigail Scott Paul, director of external relations at Leeds 2023, said: "This is where we really have to unite as a city to really land that message. Housing, jobs, infrastructure are the big shiny things. [But] we know that things like education, opportunities, boosting skills development, culture and creativity can create that."

She added: "The arts and culture sector is known for problem solving."

Rural Arts CEO Max May added: “We see ourselves as having a really, really vital role to play not only in bringing the visitor economy back but bringing back that community wellbeing and cohesion.”

A Government spokesperson said: "Throughout this crisis, we have worked with urgency to support the arts, which are the soul of the nation."

They added that it "builds on £200 million in emergency public funding to stabilise organisations in the Spring and this new investment will help secure the future of the performing arts, protect jobs in the industry and ensure work continues to flow to freelancers.

"We are committed to delivering this funding quickly and fairly to organisations, big and small, at the heart of communities across the country. Guidance to help organisations access £500 million in grants is now live and applications will open through Arts Council England from the 10th of August."