Capital of culture?

January 7th, 2014, 3pm

It was 7°C with few clouds. There was moderate breeze.

Here are the cultural players of Leeds sitting around tables with white table cloths at an open meeting to discuss whether Leeds should apply to be the European Capital of Culture 2023. Just a discussion, there is no food on the tables yet.

I went because I work a lot in Leeds. I also went for the anthropology, to observe the funding sharks, the moaners and naysayers, the policy airbags, the boosterists, the grand unitary theorisers, the insiders, the outsiders, the hacks, the frontliners doing vital things every day, the visionaries, the brilliant ideasmiths, the passionate and committed, all eyeing up each other and the potential prize in the murky pre-bid waters.

I guess I am an inside-out cynical optimist. I’ve worked on and written losing and winning bids, Kirklees’ attempt to be City of Literature, the Leeds Canvas contribution to the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Recently I’ve been eavesdropping on Hull’s successful bid to be UK City of Culture in 2017.

It is a no brainer, of course Leeds should bid. If nothing else it will politicise culture, embed the high level of support within the city’s executive and some of the elected members.

But with provisos.

Any claims to be the first, the only, the biggest, smallest, best or only should be instantly erased.

This is an artificial process, any injection of the artificial into the organic has an inherent toxicity.

Dynamic cultural development is led bottom up not apportioned top down.

No project can be for everyone, no project can involve everyone, no project can represent everyone.

There is no way of telling people everything that is going on all the time through one mechanism. Forget it, give up, information is plural, wilfully disobedient, constantly morphing, viral. Keep talking, listening, talking.

Forget about balancing the centre and the periphery, stop thinking geography, think people and where they go. Artists, readers, audiences, workers, commuters, travellers, importers, exporters, residents, visitors do not hand in their culture when they reach the city limit. Tear up the physical map, the map is drawn by what people do wherever they do it, including elsewhere!

Of course Leeds should bid.

People say, there is a value in the process whatever the result. That it is not the destination that counts, but the journey. Even if the journey for the losers often ends shortly after the decision is announced, and for the winners, shortly after the bid has been delivered and all the political will is being mobilising around bidding to host the Biennial of Dentistry, or the Horse of the Year Show.

It is somewhere between the journey and the destination that a fundamental question nags away. Why did we not have this meeting last year, or the year before? Why does it take an external beauty contest to get us all looking in the mirror. What does that say about cultural leadership, cultural advocacy in the city? Until now.

Of course Leeds should … hold on. That’s the pragmatist in me speaking. Of course we should.

The dreamer in me wonders if what would be really brave would be to go on exactly as if we were bidding, but begin acting as if we were already the European Cultural Capital, give ourselves two years to get there in 2016 not the ten to 2023, be judged not by a committee of cultural apparatchiks but by each other. We could deliver in the city, the region, the world without calling it the anything of anything, we could do it just because that is what we do, because we are from Leeds, because we are the Leeds. In fact that’s what we could call it, Leeds.

David Wade, Adrian, Cassie, Emanuel and 4 others said thanks.

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Steve Dearden

Writer, producer and Director of The Writing Squad -

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