Resilience, passion and timing are words that come up a lot when I speak with Nicola Greenan at the end of 2017. A familiar face around Leeds City Centre’s cultural projects and known for her work as external relations director at East Street Arts, founder of the LS14 Trust and her huge input into the 2023 Bid, Nicola has recently been appointed to the Leeds Enterprise Partnership board to filter more of her cultural expertise and insight through the City’s future plans.
“It was actually Angela Barnacle at Leeds City Council who suggested that I apply. I went through the whole process, and as there were 70 applicants, I was overwhelmed to have got through. I think it was a really bold and a good move by LEP! The first step is seeing the value that digital, creative and cultural industries bring to the table. My approach to the role for the first 6 months will be to listen and understand the ecology of the environment that LEP’s operating in.”
With a rich background in music and arts, Nicola’s passion for these areas, combined with her love of Leeds, has provided the backdrop for her career. “I’ve had a Marmite relationship with the City of Leeds really. I love that if you want to make something happen here, as long as you’re patient and you get stuck in, you really can. But there are a lot of layers of complexity when it comes to decision-making. I get frustrated because more things could be done, and quicker. This motivates you as an individual, regardless of your background.”
Motivation comes in many forms, but for Nicola, collaborating to create change is a recurring theme. One project in particular was a milestone moment. She explains: “I always wanted to unite film and music and 10 years ago, in 2007, I co-founded a project called 2022 Vision. In 2006/2007, when it was all about MySpace, these two areas just weren’t collaborating. So my friend Joelle from University, filmmaker Matt Maude and I decided to create a project to link 20 filmmakers with 22 musicians to create 20 music videos in Leeds. We set up meetings with so many key companies, including Screen Yorkshire, MTV and BBC Short Films. It was the most intense 2 years but amazing. It was also pretty exhausting and frustrating as the powers that be at that time couldn’t understand how to get behind it. We went to the MySpace offices and met with Orange, who were about to back us as a big social media project. It was so close to being huge, but then the world changed. The recession hit, MySpace dwindled, Orange got bought and our project collapsed overnight. We’d been doing this out of passion and essentially volunteering, so at that point we knew it couldn’t continue and we had to leave it behind. A legacy did come out of our work…the two industries did get connected. I also learnt that sometimes things start and don’t last forever. It was a massive learning curve for me.”
This learning curve was one that had not only become familiar, but that also went on to inspire the creation of the LS14 Trust. Trusting in the timing of your life is a cliché, but like most well-used sayings, it contains a lot of truth.
“I guess a lot of my career has been born out of frustration, because before the LS14 Trust, I was working in music and film and lobbying for more support for music in the City. It became like banging my head against a brick wall but sometimes it’s just not the right time for things to land, which builds patience and resilience – this was a big lesson that I’ve learned. As well as timing, it might not also be for you personally to be the one that makes this breakthrough or change.
I knew that I needed to focus my efforts elsewhere, but I wasn’t sure where exactly. I reconnected with my old friends, and we were chatting about Seacroft, because I’d left the estate at 17 years old and hadn’t really been back. The main thing I heard was that there wasn’t a lot going on, which triggered something in me and I took an interest. It all fell into place accidentally really, through conversations with people, as it became clear that Seacroft needed a community-led organisation. I spent a year in clubs, pubs and shops meeting people and LCC officers, listening. I found the old shop on the parade where I set up what’s now the Digital Lounge, part of the LS14 Trust. During this time, I’d also rekindled my friendship with Joanne Curtis, who I’d known when were teenagers. She was going through a difficult time with multiple jobs and wasn’t very happy. She volunteered for two years and I could see that it was her calling, so my motivation really was to be able to provide a full-time job for Joanne within 5 years. I’m not sure if she even knows that to this day! But we did, and Joanne’s now development manager.”
Creating and building leads us inevitably to talk about the 2023 Leeds Bid. As announced, the programme will continue despite changes to European policy. Nicola’s take on it? “Life goes on. 2023 would have been a point in our history, but in reality we didn’t put anything forward that couldn’t have been done, so we are continuing. Last week I met with an artist in Copenhagen that we’ve just committed to working with, so work will still come out of the process. 2023 has still delivered progress – culture is firmly on the agenda for businesses. Without the Bid, a lot of things wouldn’t have happened for the cultural economy. We have an amazing cultural strategy now and this will help to guide the City for the next 20+ years, to make sure that culture is valued and that Leeds isn’t the 2-tier City that it was before.”
With Art Hostel number two on the cards at East Street Arts, Nicola is also working on launching a new building in Mabgate that will become a centre for arts and technology. Nic says: “The Mabgate project is all about protecting and growing Leeds’ inner city neighbourhoods; it’s a big focus for 2018.”
Looking further ahead, what else does the future hold for Nicola? “Leeds has been my whole career, but I’m looking forward to expanding my knowledge beyond the City to other areas, such as Kirklees and Selby, with my new LEP role. I’m also looking long-term and thinking of my energy levels and where I want to be when I hit the next big milestone birthday…..that’s still a way off! But gaining more balance is something that I’m considering for the first time. My dream is to have a shipping container on the beach somewhere on the coast of Spain, most likely Barcelona, where I can sell Yorkshire tapas and have a home for stray dogs.”
No doubt the successful combination of passion, resilience and knack for timing that she possesses will make this dream a reality, but in the meantime, Leeds looks forward to seeing what else Nicola Greenan can make happen as part of the City’s cultural evolution entering 2018.
East Street Arts is running a programme of adult learning courses until March 2018. For more information, visit http://eaststreetarts.org.uk/events/