Next year, Leeds will host a major cultural programme that promises to be a spectacular celebration of a vibrant city and region.
LEEDS 2023 won’t be a traditional year of culture. Organisers see it as a catalyst to support the recovery of the city post-pandemic, with a strong focus on creative education and social cohesion. The programme will feature 12 signature events of international significance as well as smaller events for visitors and residents, with a target of reaching 75 percent of households across the region taking part.
Leeds had intended to bid for the chance to become the European Capital of Culture for 2023 when the UK was part of the European Union. But Brexit meant that those original plans were derailed. Undeterred, the city’s organisers and artistic community vowed to continue with the year of culture, and now the upcoming programme for LEEDS 2023 is even more ambitious than before.
Breaking down traditional barriers
A significant element of the reimagined festival is its emphasis on co-created work. Co-created projects involve an artist or researcher working with a community, where all participants have an equal footing and equal ownership over what is produced. The aim is to break down traditional barriers and encourage greater inclusion of ‘ordinary’ people in cultural decisions.
The University of Leeds has been closely involved in the planning of LEEDS 2023 for many years, and it was to the University’s Horizons Institute that the organising team turned to help them understand how best to ensure meaningful co-creation with communities.
In 2021 LEEDS 2023 launched a preparatory project, called “My World, My City, My Neighbourhood” involving 23 artists from across Leeds working with communities. Over 2,500 people participated in exciting initiatives, such as artist Harry Meadley’s work with the skateboarding community to support the participation of women and non-binary people in the sport; and an audible gallery exhibition co-created by people who have recently moved to Leeds – including sanctuary seekers – and Stand and Be Counted theatre company.
The Horizons Institute funded a post-doctoral researcher, Dr Lynn Wray, who led the team’s work alongside these projects to collect data, survey the participants and artists, and explore outcomes. Working with Horizons Institute’s Inés Soria-Donlan, Dr Wray evaluated how the processes of co-creation were actually working in practice, and shed light on which approaches and methods were most successful for different communities and backgrounds.
Encouraging communities to take the lead
Chris Ansell, Head of Creative Learning and Engagement at LEEDS 2023 says: “One of the big learnings from that evaluation is that these co-creation projects work much better if we can build relationships and trust between artists and communities first. While the ambition is that everyone is equal, different levels of confidence soon come into play; and we found some people still expected professional artists to take the lead. We realised that sometimes we need to really encourage communities to take the reins.”
This approach is already being used in one of the key 2023 projects, My LEEDS 2023. This involves 33 Neighbourhood Hosts – active members of their communities – one in each of the city’s wards. Almost £100,000 in funds is being made available for Hosts to design and deliver a community-led grant scheme. The Hosts decide themselves what the scheme should look like, who should receive the awards, and how best to support communities to produce outcomes.
Chris Ansell explains: “This is a completely devolved approach to grant-making, which we hope will be a highly inclusive and accessible scheme that is designed by our residents. The knowledge we’ve gained from working with Horizons has been essential for that cooperation to happen.” The scheme will be developed in late 2022, with applications open from early next year.
The Horizons Institute is also part of a collaborative project developed by LEEDS 2023, the British Council and the Cultural Institute: “For the Public Good”. The programme, a tribute to Leeds engineer John Smeaton (1724-1792), will see five international artists working alongside five University of Leeds researchers, to design technology that could support environmental sustainability in their communities.
Chris Ansell feels that Horizons Institute has been an integral partner to the LEEDS 2023 project. “Their work with us has been notable for how closely involved they have been. Instead of a piece of research being parachuted in, we’ve felt they have been with us from the outset, helping with methodology and with the quantitative research methods. And having Inés as our principal point of contact there, who really understands everything we’re doing, and is as wholeheartedly invested as we are, has been very helpful.”