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What Now for Leeds Culture?

April 11, 2011

So the consultation phase on the Vision for Leeds is now over, and the resulting draft Vision with City Priority Plans is snaking its way through various committees and boards on its way to adoption by the City Council and its partners as the strategic planning framework for Leeds.

And while our opinions and thoughts on progress are no longer actively sought, the process is open and transparent and it may be appropriate to put it under a little scrutiny.

So what do the does the draft Vision and City Priority Plans have to say about ‘Culture’?  Is there enough of the right stuff here to help us improve our cultural report from C minus – Could do better…?

The Strategic Partnership for the City will be led by the Leeds Initiative Board which will oversee the work of 5 Strategy Boards, and culture has its home, with the economy, on the ‘Sustainable Economy and Culture Board’.

Now personally, while I can see some advantages in this, I am always a little deflated when culture is seen as synonymous with, or a comfortable bedfellow of ‘ the economy’.  Once we start to conflate culture with the economy all sorts of things can start to happen.  Not least of which is the relegation of ‘culture’ to providing a ‘necessary and becoming backdrop’ if we are to attract and retain ‘proper’ wealth creators in our city.

If the main benchmark for investment in culture becomes GDP, ROI or some other financial metric surely we are failing to understand the fundamental role of culture in our communities; to provide opportunities for self-expression and development, to bring people together and to provoke fresh insight?  But it seems that much of the cultural ‘leadership’ is happy to justify its existence on purely economic terms so perhaps they will be happy to be bundled in with ‘the economy’.  Perhaps that is how our cultural leaders emerge, through their fluency in economics as much as culture?

The problem of cultural representation on the Sustainable Economy and Culture Board will be an interesting one.  I can find no hard information on the composition of Strategy Boards or how they will be appointed.  But I would guess that the Strategy Board will be dominated by business and economic interests, with places going to big business (retail, finance and other representatives of large employers), and a place going to the Chamber of Commerce as the ‘representative’ of the small businesses in the city.  I also suspect that property developers and their ilk will be well represented. And of course tourism will need a place.  So how many places will be made available for ‘culture’?  Time will tell.  And in a Strategy Board that will almost inevitably be focussed on the ‘sustainable economy’ it will be interesting to see just how much airtime the cultural questions get.

It will be interesting to see whether the large, diverse, and poorly defined sector that gets labelled ‘cultural’ is able to put forward its own widely supported suggestions for credible and effective representative leadership.  I suspect not.  And this might be a challenge that it wishes to reflect on.

But enough worrying about governance. What does the draft City Priority Plan have to say about culture?

Well, at the top-level it says that Leeds will be a City where ‘People enjoy a high quality and varied cultural offer’.  Now already I detect a bias towards consumption of culture over its production, but perhaps that is more a reflection of my own prejudices than anything else.  The City Priority Plan goes on to describe what it calls a ‘4 Year Priority, that ‘More people get involved in the city’s cultural opportunities’.   It then offers a ‘Headline Indicator’, what I believe to be a first take on how we will measure progress towards both the 4 year priority and the overall Vision: and the Headline Indicator is the ‘Proportion of adults and children who regularly participate in cultural activities’.

Now for those who work in the cultural field this maybe both straightforward and sensible. To me it looks like a nightmare of definitions, baselines and measurement.  What counts as culture?  Who decides?  Who counts and how?

But set all this managerialism to one side.

The thing that worries me is that this is likely to advantage the large players over the small.  The ones who can offer large audiences.  The big set piece events over the local.   Is this the direction that we want to move in?  Or should we set a 4 Year Priority and a Headline Indicator more likely to promote independent and grass-roots culture?

But perhaps most worrying  for me is that with the arrival of the Leeds Arena, however we define and measure this headline indicator progress is likely to be achieved without any additional effort.  With a new 13500 seat arena looking to put on over 100 events a year the ‘Proportion of adults and children who regularly participate in cultural activities’ is surely bound to rise.  But that ‘proportion’ will surely overwhelmingly represent the well-heeled of the city.

Culture as just another vehicle for economic transaction….

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5 Comments
  1. philkirby permalink

    Counting bums on seats as a measurement of cultural activity? Not what I really care about either. Big venues will get big audiences but that doesn’t mean that more people watching Coldplay live at Leeds Arena is a good thing . . . I’d rather count how many new bands are being formed in Leeds, how many people writing plays, making opera, painting, film making etc. Is that sort of thing mentioned anywhere?

    • Not that I can see. Seems to focus on consumption of culture rather than production. And the emphasis on ‘proportion of adults and children taking part’ which could mean both in production and consumption will favour events that are ticketed and can be counted. Real questions about what counts as ‘culture’ and how things will be counted. Suspect this kind of approach might look attractive on paper to ‘planners and strategists’ but may have a less than positive effect on the sector it is intended to promote.

      What is the difference between a ‘four year priority’ and a ‘five year plan‘?

      When we are trying to develop complex, adaptive phenomena like ‘culture’ we have to choose headline indicators with great care, and use them with great sensitivity if we are to have a meaningful performance dashboard that does not deny, or perhaps kill, the ‘soul in the cultural machine’.

  2. Interesting post. Seems to me a classic example of an indicator devised because no-one could think of anything better. Don’t have an instant alternative but I believe the answer lies in finding indicators which promote the behaviours we are really looking for – providing opportunities for self-expression and development, bringing people together, provoking fresh insight in your words, rather than bums on seats.
    Number of cultural events in which participation is free would be an interesting indicator. Could include street parties on the 29th?

  3. Mick McCann permalink

    Couple of initial thoughts. Sounds like a prescription for further ignoring and maybe even stripping out any ‘personality’, local/small cultural dynamism from the city of Leeds. Or at best the small will be invisible and unsupported even at a basic level. This is bad for the economy and promotion of Leeds, making it just another city competing with cities, some of which, already have established ‘personalities’ which, as we know, Leeds has not. Or rather it has but, over the years, it’s been ignored.

    Thing about small things, like seeds, they can grow big and retain their personality and unique (in this case Leeds) nature.

    So we’re measuring bums on seats where? I’m guessing mainly theatre, opera, classical music, plus visitors to museums and galleries. The things that, when I’m being facetious, I describe as ‘dead culture’ – and I agree Mike, they are passive and don’t encourage or explore creativity outside themselves. They are exclusive.

    With the possible exception of museums and galleries, these things, through no fault of their own are usually risk averse and safe (their business models dictate it), aimed at (and consumed by) a limited, largely ‘middle-class’, repeat audience. With the very occasional exception, they tell you nothing of place (Leeds) and could be produced anywhere; follow the main productions of the WYP or Northern Ballet over the next year and tell me which would not have been equally comfortable if staged in Bristol or Glasgow. So Leeds measures itself culturally on its ability to mimic the rest of the cities of the world and with a complete lack of imagination enters the homogenous cultural broth.

    Yes some people, when visiting a city, want a night out at the theatre/ opera/concert hall, no problem with that, but when I visit a place I want to discover its uniqueness, something of its essence and unless I’m in Vienna or Stratford I doubt I’ll find that through the not bad Mozart or Shakespeare. I don’t go to Krakow to see something that I could have seen in Leeds. I’m not advocating banning traditional, repeat culture just asking where’s the support for the new or the Leeds specific?

    I’m less sceptical than some about the Leeds Arena, (I think the city has been crying out for a larger venue for years) but maybe that’s because I’ve not studied the project in detail. I take it that part of the plan is for every ‘big’ gig to be opened by a 20 minute slot by a Leeds band, obviously. Help promote the Leeds music scene? No? Why not?

    Secondly, why are we defining and measuring Leeds’ cultural success on forms based in, at the latest, the 18th/19th/20th century? Promoting old, restricted/limited cultural forms with no room for expansion? Yes something may tour but you can only get as many bums in as the seats you have. Because these old cultures were of their time, they ignore the modern market. I can sell as many books as people want to buy, you want a million? I can produce them and within the next few years my stuff will be printable, as you wait, in book shops across the globe. Books, DVDs, films, CDs/downloads and other forms involving modern technology do not limit their audience and reach beyond the theatre, venue. They are not exclusive. So how are we to support or promote writers, film makers, DJs, ‘cutting edge’ art, bands/musicians etc in Leeds?

    Slight side issue but did anyone put up a fight to save the extremely economically and culturally successful Screen Yorkshire? Or it’s transplantation to join all major ‘northern’ BBC and ITV decision making and production in Manchester? We should have been marching in the bloody streets but I’m as guilty as any.

    So back on topic Leeds is to encourage, define and measure itself upon safe, passive, repetitive, limited reach, homogeneous/non place specific culture? Largely ignoring any personality or unique culture Leeds has? How exciting, I’m inspired.

    Can anyone tell me of Leeds culture over the last decade that has had a bigger national (or international) reach in promoting Leeds than the novel’s and film adaptations of David Peace, the dramas of Kay Mellor, or the music of The Kaiser Chiefs or Corrine Bailey Rae, or the morning chuntering of (love him or hate him – I LOVE him) Chris Moyles?

    Oops, soz Mike, I’ve just blogged on y’blog….is it even related?

  4. Helen Robinson permalink

    That’s a shame. Seems little has moved on then since the days of the city’s cultural successes being measured against the flawed NI11 (% of people who have ‘engaged’ in the arts 3+ times in the past year).

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