What Now for Leeds Culture?
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….