A rising tide lifts all boats: Leeds 2023 explained

22 October 2019

Cities bidding for the European Capital of Culture (ECoC) benefit from the process regardless of the result.

This was one of the takeaways from the EUROCITIES Culture Forum in Chemnitz last April 2019. Leeds, competing for ECoC 2023, responded to the cancellation of the competition in the UK with a five-year cultural investment programme culminating in a year of cultural celebration in 2023. How was this possible? “The thing that secures your ability to do anything, whatever it is, is by engaging lots and lots of people from different sectors, and by spending your time working with the people that are sceptical”, explains Cluny Macpherson, chief officer for culture and sport at Leeds city council.

Understanding the ECoC bid as something that brings different actors together around a common cause is the only way to move the whole culture sector forward, Macpherson continues. In Leeds, the widespread belief that “a rising tide lift all boats” has allowed the city to harness the energy, creativity and momentum created by the bidding process in the wake of the unexpected cancellation. It ensures that the 12 million pound commitment to the bid approved by the city council would remain in place. This investment, fundamental to carrying on, would have been anything but easy to get in another situation. What made the difference was the strong political consensus secured around the bid among all parties.

None of the actors concerned backtracked because the reasons for bidding in the first place were still there. In particular, the willingness to reshape the image of Leeds as a city with something important to say in terms of culture was still very present. Macpherson recalls that “a lot of pride came up, and I think that was partly because when we had created our bid we had engaged so many people that felt they were part of it, were excited by it and still wanted to do it.”

Citizens and stakeholders were consulted from the very first stage of the process, the decision of taking up the ECoC challenge, as well as when discussing how to carry on outside of the competition. Having designed the programme bottom-up, it felt natural to have the citizens and the city administration still on the same wavelength when Leeds was no longer eligible for ECoC. Thus, with the same enthusiasm as before, and possibly even more united, the city resolutely backed Leeds 2023’s project of transforming its economy through culture and creativity.

Leeds, whose programme earned the EUROCITIES awards 2018 for cooperation, hosted the last EUROCITIES Culture Forum meeting on 9-11 October 2019 on the theme of ‘celebrating diversity through innovative cultural partnerships.’ Kully Thiarai, recently appointed creative director of Leeds 2023, was a keynote speaker of the forum.

The highlights of the forum can be found here: Highlights from the culture forum in Leeds