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Since Britain’s exit from Europe, we have no longer been able to compete for European Capital of Culture. But, as Kully Thiarai writes, Leeds decided to do it anyway. 

panoramic overhead view of Leeds city centre
City Square, Leeds City Centre

Carl Milner for Visit Leeds

I started as Creative Director of LEEDS 2023 just as the UK left the EU on 1 January 2020. It was an audacious call and one that would require tenacity, commitment, and a belief that, when people work together in common cause, anything is possible. 

Little did I know then just how much we would be tested and quite how challenging the circumstances would be become. Ten weeks later we were in the midst of a global pandemic and working in lockdown. 

What everyone thought would be short-lived became our modus operandi as we began to build a vision and an organisation to deliver a Year of Culture. We were a start-up, navigating complex circumstances and trying to build relationships with a cultural sector that was also going through unprecedented challenges.

Telling a new story about the city

Our plan has always been to be transformational. The scale of what we are trying to achieve hasn’t diminished because we are no longer in an official competition. LEEDS 2023 will celebrate the city and its the communities through a series of signature events across the year. 

Wrapped around will be activities that include skills training, creative education, and co-curated events within all 33 wards of Leeds. We will be instrumental in boosting skills, opportunities and jobs as well as widening participation and access to culture for everyone.

We’re working with cultural partners across the city, from well-known institutions to individual independent artists, encouraging the whole creative community to lean into the year. Leeds is a very culturally rich city; by working collaboratively we can showcase some of the best it has to offer.

We want LEEDS 2023 to tell a new story about the city, creating opportunities and demonstrating the significant role that the year can and will play in Leeds’s economic, social and cultural strategy - now and in the future.  

Expansive in our thinking

Unleashed from any formal framework, we have the opportunity to create a new route map for cultural engagement and activity. A blueprint of our own which allows us to be inclusive and expansive about what we mean by culture. We include food, sport and everyday creativity in our thinking.  

Our aim is to let culture loose across our city, creating opportunities for everyone to be part of LEEDS 2023. Through partnerships with Leeds Rhinos and Leeds United FC, for example, we will connect with those who may feel culture is not for them and create experiences together that will build new collective memories and stories for our city. 

Parks and public spaces in neighbourhoods across the city, not just in the city centre, will play host to events made both with the people of Leeds and with renowned artists from across the globe. Whether you’re a local or from outside an LS postcode there will be plenty to see and do. 

Culture as a career choice

Leeds is a national leader in cultural education and we’re working very closely with our higher and further educational institutions. We want to show that there is a reason to get into the cultural sector, that you can have a career in the creative industries, right here in Yorkshire. 

There is a strong and vibrant cultural economy here and a growing appetite to utilise culture as a vital lever in supporting an economic and social recovery. Leaders across West Yorkshire see culture as a powerful tool for change. 

LEEDS 2023, Kirklees Year of Music 2023, Calderdale’s own year of culture to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2024 and Bradford’s bid for UK City of Culture 2025 are testament to the region’s commitment to the creative economy. Plenty of reasons, then, why the cultural sector is a possible career choice, not just for performers but for the whole eco-system that surrounds events like these.

But there’s no doubt we are facing a challenging funding landscape and that to ‘level up’ requires cross sector partnership and investment, as well as backing from businesses and communities. It all needs to come together to achieve the best outcome; the recently refreshed Case for Culture makes a compelling argument for this. 

Excellent return on investment to stimulate recovery

Our aim is to push the city and its people to make the most of the opportunity offered by LEEDS 2023, raising the city’s collective ambition. We’re keeping an eye on the future too, working with The Audience Agency and Centre for Cultural Value, building in processes to share our learning and insights for those that follow and embedding our experiences with partners across the region. Soon we’ll start recruiting our volunteers – some 2,000 of them – and they will be a force that lives on long after 2023 is over.  

There are significant economic benefits to hosting and investing in LEEDS 2023. We can generate jobs, not just in the city’s cultural sector but in the region as a whole, playing an important part in the recovery from Covid. 

Independent analysis which examined data from previous cities of culture, demonstrates that LEEDS 2023 has the potential to generate £114m of extra revenue to the visitor economy in 2023, rising to some £140m by 2030. We are anticipating a return on investment of 6:1 for Leeds, and we see it as an investment in the future of our young people and all our local communities. 

If we work together, we can achieve more. Pride of place is everything. It’s essential to what we are doing. LEEDS 2023 is levelling up in action, believing we can thrive by creating vibrant ambitious projects. We’re going to make the most of it. 
Kully Thiarai is Creative Director and Chief Executive Officer of LEEDS 2023.

 @Leeds_2023 | @KullyLeeds2023

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