In Conversation With Abigail Scott Paul, Director of External Relations, Leeds 2023.

Abigail Scott Paull joined Creative Director Kully Thiarai and Executive Director Mark Hollander at Leeds 2023 in March, taking on the responsibility of the company’s communications and partnerships activities.

Abigail was previously employed as the Deputy Director of Advocacy and Public Engagement at Yorkshire based social change charity, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, where she made a huge impact on the charity’s public engagement, and narrative shaping activities around poverty. Whilst at the charity, Abigail was also involved with a range of events and artistic exhibitions such as the photographic exhibition by Jillian Edelstein, Picture Britain: Our People Our Poverty.

I spoke to Abigail this week about her role at Leeds 2023, the activities that the company has started as well as those that it has planned for the coming years.

Could you provide a bit of background to Leeds 2023? 

Abigail explained that when Brexit was decided, Leeds’ application for European City of Culture was no longer viable, with notification of this given by the organising committee less than a week before the final presentation. However, highlighting the importance of culture to Leeds, the City Council stepped up and assigned initial funds to support the development of the Leeds 2023 campaign. Whilst being removed from the European City of Culture competition was a blow, Abigail explained that it does offer silver linings, such as the potential to think more broadly about what constitutes culture when developing events for the City. 

Leeds 2023 stands to be a landmark year of culture for the City and the wider region. It will be a creative experience with a focus on connecting people from across the City. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Leeds 2023 want to play an active role in the recovery of the area. To do that, they are working across three strands: First, how can we make the impossible, possible? Leeds 2023 want to host a range of small and stand out events to bring people to Leeds and drive social change. Second, to work with existing cultural organisations to amplify the cultural work of Leeds and realise further ambitions. And third, for the next generation, nurture talent and increase the sustainability of cultural events in Leeds. All of this, Abigail hopes, will put Leeds on the cultural map at the wider level, raising the profile of the City at the national level and internationally.

What about your role in Leeds 2023? 

Abigail told me that she previously worked at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which she thoroughly enjoyed, but moved across to Leeds 2023 to take on a new challenge. She started in the middle of the COVID-19 lockdown, which was tricky. However, she explained that the City and the Leeds 2023 team have been open and generous and have made the transition easy – everyone has been very welcoming, which Abigail believes reflects the spirit of the City. Although she has been mostly working from home and juggling her new role with home-schooling, the Leeds2023 team recently started to share a co-working space, to help them collaborate effectively both as a company and with other people and organisations in the Leeds City Region. 

As Director of External Relations, Abigail is working across communication, marketing and stakeholder management, and as part of a small team, she is really involved with a range of activities, and is looking forward to big picture thinking. For her, the priority areas are to engage with regional and national government, as well as local and national organisations, to unlock the region’s recovery and put Leeds art and culture on the radar.

The Leeds2023 team are taking their time with the work they are doing, especially considering the uncertainties of COVID-19, but Abigail and the rest of the team are exploring what the people of the region want, which will help to ensure that Leeds 2023 is a successful event and one that will help to tell the cultural story of Leeds powerfully. 

What are the other functions within the team?  How is working together going?

As a new organisation, Leeds 2023 is still small. There are currently 4 members, with three of those in the senior management team. The team works together to develop the strategy of Leeds 2023, including the design of the events and the communicative activity surrounding the campaign. After a necessary period of working from home, they now occupy space on Boar Lane, in the heart of Leeds City Centre. Whilst working in the City is sporadic at the moment, the team are keen to have that physical presence.

Regarding growth of the team, they are planning to recruit more local people, one of whom will be a production manager, which will be a brilliant role that will help the organisation to collaborate effectively, helping the people of Leeds to tell their own creative stories. 

How do the plans and the operation of the team work alongside festivals and other events that already take place in Leeds, like the International Festival? 

As Leeds is already very active in terms of culture and arts, I felt it was important to ask this question.

Abigail said that Leeds is a City of festivals, and as a team, Leeds 2023 do not want to parachute in and negatively impact any of the existing events or to ignore the events that are already established in Leeds, and instead, they want to work with the various organisers, as well as the independent food and drink scene, to develop even more events and raise the City’s profile even further. She said that she and the rest of the Leeds 2023 team want to work with all the existing festivals, and they want to help amplify them. This, she explained, would be on a case by case basis, but would need to involve collaboration. The Leeds 2023 team members all have strong community links and are keen to support the City, building on those links, and ensuring Leeds 2023 becomes part of the City’s fabric. Before any events take place, the team will speak and listen to the people of the City and ensure that Leeds 2023 can strengthen the social fabric and not detract from it.

What are the plans for post 2023? 

As a final question, I wanted to explore what Abigail sees beyond 2023. She explained that legacy is a tricky concept. “Leeds already has a rich culture, and we want to make sure we support that and amplify it”. Abigail went on to say that the team do want to have some physical legacy, which has already started to take shape, with the recent development of a home for poetry in Leeds, the inclusion of the British Library in Temple Mill and the building of a creative makers’ space in Gipton.

In addition to a physical legacy, Abigail said that the team are keen to alter the legacy around the City. Instead of being a city for shopping and motorways, they want Leeds to be known for culture. This is the ambition for Leeds 2023. Moreover, they want to support and nurture the next generation of creatives, inspiring them and building them up. Finally, the team is very keen to hear the hidden stories in Leeds, for people to get to know each other better, and to celebrate the diversity across the City, driving change. 

Whilst the ambition may be bold, there is every chance that the impact of Leeds 2023 will be memorable and lasting, and in the interim, the milestones will be interesting to witness!

Photograph by Keith Kaselampeo.

Dr Gemma Bridge

Gemma, who works at Leeds Beckett University, has been writing for over 10 years and loves to share what's going on in and around Leeds. She is also an international athlete, artist and the creator of Leeds Food Guide. You can find her on Instagram at @GLB_racewalk or @Leeds_FoodGuide

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