Since when was LEEDS 2023 about anything other than culture?

LEEDS 2023 is meant to be a year-long celebration of the city “letting culture loose”. Yet, according to the Strategic Plan, rather than simply being about what culture Leeds can offer and attract to the city, it is instead seen as an opportunity to tackle all sorts of other, non-cultural issues.

This was brought starkly to light in last November’s newsletter, in which we were told that plans for 2023 to be “a Green Year of Culture” were “at the forefront” of the Committees minds as some of them prepared to head off – for some unexplained reason – to COP26 in Glasgow. According to LEEDS 2023 Executive Director, Emma Beverley, writing in the YEP:

You might think that a year of culture has little to do with climate change, but I believe that the arts has an incredible ability to communicate big subjects that are hard to comprehend, and a responsibility to inspire people to take action for the better.

Leeds City Council’s ambition is for the city to be net zero carbon by 2030, and it’s our job at Leeds 2023 to help reach that target.

A year of culture is an incredible opportunity to highlight positive solutions to climate change. Through culture and creativity we hope to inspire and involve the people of Leeds in making our city a healthy and sustainable place for the future.

Well, actually, Leeds’ year of culture had nothing to do with climate change. The idea behind it came about after the EU referendum result disqualified Leeds from applying to be European Capital of Culture for 2023. Many of us across Leeds’ cultural scene suggested we do something anyway, and organisations were invited to a first meeting at the Town Hall to discuss what that might be.

This was followed by smaller discussions at the Carriageworks, after which submissions were invited for ideas. Since then, the whole event has been taken over by a burgeoning Committee and the Council who seem to see LEEDS 2023 as an opportunity to tackle all sorts of social, political and economic issues, none of which were discussed in those earlier public meetings.

For example, the Strategic Plan has 5 major ‘Aims’, each with 5 or 6 sub-aims, and amongst which the cultural offering doesn’t even come in at No.1, but at Aim 3. While Aims 1 and 2 include, amongst other things, to:

  • Increase opportunities for young people to access new skills and work.
  • Improve the health and well-being of our citizens.
  • Boost digital skills and increase tools for communication.
  • Increase public engagement with green spaces, parks and nature.
  • Boost the visibility, representation and participation of our diverse communities.
  • Improve the physical and social connections between communities.

As for the environmental imperative, this is under No.4 and aims to “increase knowledge and understanding of the climate crisis and work sustainably to support Leeds’ ambition to be carbon neutral by 2030.”

But why would a council policy – unrelated to culture and that could change depending on future administrations – be included in the aims of a year of culture? If some on the Council want to push their net zero policy, they need to convince the electorate of it. And if members of the Committee want to promote this policy, they should do so separately from their work as festival organisers.

Now, while the environmental agenda might be at the forefront of the Committees minds, this February’s newsletter announced that they’re also making sure they have “creative education at the heart (my emphasis) of everything” the Committee does, as it announced partnerships with city’s higher and further education institutions.

This might seem an improvement on the environmental agenda (depending how green you are), education at least comes under the broader definition of ‘culture’, and you’d expect the institutions cited to be involved. Yet, even here, their involvement is seen as less important for their potential creative involvement than “as a major boost for LEEDS 2023’s ambitions to create hundreds of opportunities, jobs and legacy for young people studying and working in the city’s creative industries.”

But, whether it’s the green agenda or job creation – and as well-meaning as I’m sure much of this is – what does it mean for those producing works and events?

For example, if LEEDS 2023 has “a responsibility to inspire people to take action for the better” on climate change, this suggests not only that the Committee and Council know what action it is best for each of us to be inspired to take on this issue, but also that artists and event organisers will be responsible for pushing that message in their works, or at least paying lip-service to it, along with job creation and other non-cultural aims.

The problem here is that once the demands on culture become to deliver results extraneous to it the quality of what is produced can become secondary, or even lower down the agenda – No.3 in the case of LEEDS 2023. In other words, commissions might tick a few boxes that please the Committee and Council, but fail to delight, inspire or entertain a wider audience.

Such instrumental use of arts and culture is not new of course and, particularly since New Labour established the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, governments of all stripes have looked to the cultural sector to solve all sorts non-cultural problems – often making it a criterion for funding. It’s even part of the current Government’s levelling-up agenda in its Case for Culture, published in January and referred to by Creative Director Kully Thiarai in the February newsletter to stress how LEEDS 2023 is seen as “playing an instrumental role in the city’s social and economic recovery”.

However, not only is such an instrumentalist approach likely to affect the quality of what is on offer during 2023, it’s also highly unlikely to deliver on those other aims. This shouldn’t need spelling out, but culture can never be the direct answer to any non-cultural problem. The effects of art and culture are indeterminate, immeasurable and unpredictable. You can’t even determine if a work is going to achieve its own desired aims, never mind help “improve the health and well-being of our citizens”, increase job opportunities, or reduce CO2 emissions.

As such, all extra-cultural aims should be dropped from the LEEDS 2023 plans. While the specific events and works may be about whatever themes organisers and artists wish them to be about, there should be no pressure on anyone to include or push any specific agendas or council policies in their work. Instead, the Council and Committee should show more faith in culture for its own sake.

Engagement with arts and culture in-and-of-themselves can be life enhancing, infectious, and inspire people in all sorts of unpredictable ways. As well as simply give people pleasure.  As Kully Thiarai, told the YEP in January: “This time next year we will be presenting to the world our Leeds, a city that is vibrant and bold and full of exceptional, creative people”. So, with less than 9 months to go to LEEDS 2023, it’s not too late to make culture the No.1 and only aim.

Paul Thomas is co-founder of The Leeds Salon public discussion forum, and has long banged on about Leeds being a ‘City of Debate’.


  1. There’s a lot of truth here Paul which I entirely agree with – basically that “Culture” is now being reduced to its functionality to other wider agendas.

    In a way Leeds 2023 is simply an exemplification of what has been going on both locally and nationally for years. The “Arts” or in your term “Culture” has become what I tend to think of as “The cultural (or creative) industries”. I find this term useful because it points to the material interests of various people and organisations who define themselves within the “cultural sphere” and participate in competition for funding and in the production of “socially desirable outcomes” in a cycle of ever- expanding self-promotion and deepening “public engagement”.

    Locally I have always had a bit of poke at Leeds Arts Health and Wellbeing Network (or some such) since this also reflects your point about what culture/the arts are really about – arguably their critical challenging content should be at least minimally unsettling. Another example I would use would be to the arts/cultural programme associated with the Tour de France when this was in town. Basically, you could get funding for anything with bikes in it (ha ha).

    Your critique of 2023 is exactly on point overall – given my view of the cultural industries obviously I would make the point that 2023 is honey pot for out-of-town producers, curators and experience managers to roll up, do their thing and go away again. I would also suggest that the project is schizophrenic in its attempts both “to put Leeds on the map” and at the same time trying to realise the creative potential of communities “telling their stories” – one hopes these stories turn out to be compatible with the representative message the organisers are trying to put across to their wider audience (see recent launch event in London).

    Just to say I am a little more optimistic than you seem to be about this local input purely within the contexts of individual neighbourhoods I can see something coming from this beyond what you say about the aims and objectives of the programme as a whole.

    Thanks for doing the research and raising these important arguments.


    John Sour

    1. Thank John! And I agree that these types of events are a honey pot for the creative industries types, often out of town – which was one of main complaints from people of Hull when it was year of culture. I suppose it was almost inevitable that from the original idea of “let’s do our own thing”, that LEEDS2023 would be colonised by those with instrumentalist, social engineering and awareness-raising agendas to push.

      1. Just chatting now but there is another aspect of all this which I call “the ethics of legacy” – part of this “functioning of culture” we have been discussing is focussed on “legacy” usually but exclusively measured in terms of economic benefits. As always there are some ethical issues about turning up in communities doing stuff and going away again – do you leave the situation worse than when you arrived?

        Now in relation to cultural festivals – if you are familiar with Hull and its associated film “A Northern Soul” – you may remember the case of Steve the DJ who had his moment of fame and celebrity but in the end financially and probably psychologically ended up worse than he was before when his funding unsurprisingly ceased – I discussed this episode with a notable Leeds creative – I argued that the film maker and co-creator of the Festival may have cynically exploited Steve (he ticked numerous of their functionalist boxes) unthinking of any long term support – my discussant disagreed saying it was good Steve was able to live his dream albeit for a short time – I wasn’t convinced. and if I’m right lets hope Leeds 2023 doesn’t produce too many Steve’s – regards John

        1. The “legacy” thing brings to mind a very early meeting at the art gallery about applying for be European Capital of culture. One academic from the audience asked “what would be the legacy?”. I was sat there thinking: “why are you thinking about after the event instead of what we’d actually do and put on as a city?”

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