A Grand Depart from Public Art As We Know It


Ever since street art became the new name for graffiti and went from being that deplorable criminal act to a new way to make a name for yourself, cities around the world have been trying to grapple with the idea that a mass of concrete, traffic, noise and rush might have a fire in its belly that no one can control.

Over the years I’ve listened to various artists, planners, city officers, designers, regeneration specialists, community warriors, philanthropists, and developers argue the toss about what Leeds should and shouldn’t be. I’ve heard points in them all that I can agree with and some that I can’t. I fully support the idea that there should be less clutter in the city – less stuff that makes it hard to find your way around, fewer big clumpy signs that are functional but resolutely ugly and formal. But one man’s clutter is another man’s creativity. Who’s to say whether or not a procession of astroturf arrows leading the way to the nearest park is clutter or creativity?


I’ve sat in meetings where there is real fear on both sides of the table. A fear of granting permission and then being left with a mess of ill thought-out developments that create hazard and embarrassment, the new white elephants sanctioned by the powers that be. A fear that the city will never change, never evolve and grow to embrace its personality and wear its heart on its sleeve in the way that other cities have. A fear that Leeds will never be a place of the much instagrammed roof or the many-pinned mural or the trending tree-lined viaduct. I can smell the fear from the moment the agenda drops into my inbox. But worse than that I can taste the apathy. Those who’ve been to the meetings, heard the same old story. Those who urge us not to wait for permission but hit stumbling blocks when they try to run with it.

Recently there has been a series of lectures, blog posts, and debates about how to introduce play into cities. How to de-sterilise the city centre, make it feel welcoming, happy, creative and inspiring. The debates follow a usual theme of playfulness, public art, child friendliness and creativity. But very few follow a train of thought that urges tolerance.

I should confess I have an ulterior motive for writing this.

In developing ideas and opportunities for city dressing linked to the Tour de France Grand Depart I’ve met most of the opinions and emotions summarised above. A straight refusal to break the norm pitched against a straight refusal to accept the norm. People genuinely want to play with the city. They want to dress it and feel some kind of ownership of and connection to it. On the other side of the fence the planners, architects and developers want a vibrant city that is talked about as the envy of other cities too and they are not a single species. Planners are citizens too and have different views – it’s really easy to see planning departments and developers as faceless organisations but there are people within those teams with real passion for the city too (they just don’t passively aggressively rant about it on twitter.) But the fear is back and it’s getting stiffling.

What if we get out the dressing up box for the Grand Depart and someone hates what someone else creates? What if there’s an equal amount of love and hate for a particular piece of city dressing? What if the inboxes of councillors get stuffed with demands to remove something but then there’s a petition to keep it? What if you sanctioned it and said yes and now you have to answer for it…

And what if the dressing up box is packed up after the 5th July and never seen again? What if people feel cheated and used for the occasion then locked out again? What if it is only the few who find opportunity through their networks rather than than the entire city who gets to play out?


What if we try a little tolerance? And be realistic.

The whole city won’t get to play. Not because it is an opportunity for the few but because it’s new, we’ve never done it before and it takes time to get the message out. Some of the wealthiest won’t know about it, and neither will some of the poorest in the city. Some people will love it, some will hate it. There will be legalities and red tape to be negotiated. Not because the city likes it but because sometimes that’s necessary and actually can be helpful in the long run. For everything someone loves they can point to something else they hate and vice-versa. Maybe we could be a little bolder and braver and stand by our choices, not sanitise them. Maybe the dressing up box will stay out just not on the scale of the Grand Depart to begin with. Would that be so bad? If the city learnt the difference between play and party?

Perhaps we should play with the city more and have a more open mind the way in which others choose to play. Not everyone likes huge splashes of colour, some find beauty in monochrome simplicity while some declare it soul-less. Maybe we need to have a more toned down version for the everyday to make the major parties and celebrations feel more of an occasion. I love the Pride event, but if I had to fight my way through it to get to work every day the allure might fade. That said there’s plenty here that I could find a little space in my life for.

What if we add balance to the tolerance?

So it’s OK to try something because some will love it, some will hate it, you can’t please them all. It’ll still be a city with grit and grime. It won’t look like a care bear ate too many skittles and threw up all over Park Row. But equally it won’t look like every hipster agency in Shoreditch was given £100 and train fare to play with a northern city for the weekend. The brutal, ’60s edifice of the Bank of England building will still gleam in the sunlight but the next street over a parade of lanterns might light the way to Light Night, or every parking space could get covered with turf for a picnic, or a pop-up LIDO may take over a car park by night rather just the usual ‘official’ events spaces. What if the council knew about it and even enabled all that? What if you didn’t like the lanterns, but thought that’s OK anyway?

What if a public art strategy is about about more than sanctioned sculpture and pretty paving? Leeds could be the city that redefines public art. A sort of Best City blueprint for getting out of the way and letting things happen whilst keeping a watchful eye.

Let’s start here and see what happens: Dressing up the City for the Grand Depart

(Leanne originally posted this piece on her own blog. Thanks for letting us use it on Culture Vultures: Ed.)


    1. Yes, I wondered about that phrase too. Still, I’m interested in the idea that we can do something interesting with the city, and not just have interesting things done unto us.

      1. Well do it then! Instead of moaning about things being ‘done to us’, developments being ugly or ‘the council’ doing a crap job, why not get out there and do stuff! Raise the £30 million pounds to save a wonderful listed building, stump up the creativity for a robust piece of public art that is attractive, speaks to people and is well maintained, or perhaps engage in local planning and lead the development of the city from the community!!

        1. Erm, just come from leading a tour around a landmark Grade 1 listed Leeds building that I’ve put 5 years (mostly unpaid) labour into keeping going. And I am kinda involved in plenty of local planning stuff (again, unpaid.)

          I’ve never said “the council” were doing a crap job. The person who wrote the article (and organised the event) works for the council and is doing a bloody good job. There were plenty of council and non-council people at the event working together to make the city a better place. Which is how it should be.

  1. I Love this article.i do wish we had more fun with art .but art is objective ! We would never please everyone.but why not just try and listen and compromise!i would love if we could take the run down buildings in leeds and create living art ,fun spaces !we have a beautiful city with great architecture.i wish everyone could see this .

  2. Just because it is hard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. Equally, just because one persons artistic vision is screaming to be projected onto a city canvas doesn’t mean we should do it.

    A truly shared space and shared vision is a Eutopia. For a free space I would fully support the vision. For a space that is owned by private companies, individuals or the tax payer then we must tread lightly and sensitively.

    My thread of comment continues in that we should be sensitive to who we create these events and installations for and not be selective in who we see as the ‘public’, suggesting a demographic that meets our own internal social/economic norms.

    This is a great city, with great people, great cultures and a socio-political system of democracy that we all signed up to.

    Vive Le Difference and heres to a fantastic Grand Depart.

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