Leeds International Festival – Trouble in lockdown

Thursday 30 April.  Today would have marked the first day of L20 (Leeds International Festival).  Only it isn’t.  It isn’t because, in common with every other physical event in the UK, it had to be postponed.  Postponed – not cancelled. Keep that in mind.

So why am I stating the obvious? Well, the postponement of this particular event led to something quite unexpected happening. A number of those who would have been putting on events during the Festival were clearly not happy with how things had been handled and decided to air their thoughts as publicly as you can these days – via social media.

The open letter

On 20 April a small but not insignificant group of artists and arts organisations jointly signed an open letter which accused the BID of breaching contracts and of non-payment of invoices.  There was more to it than that and the full text is available via a link at the bottom of this piece; but that was the crux of it. 

I say small because the artists who signed represent around a third of the events planned for L20 and as far as we know the remainder who incurred costs of their own are happy with how the situation has been handled to date, or at least happy enough to keep quiet.

Being released in this fashion was a way to ensure certain parties with previous grievances would be handed the opportunity to interject, and that they did, although not in the numbers I was expecting. It’s understandable that some people have more important things to worry about right now. 

Something immediately didn’t feel right, which is the reason you are reading this piece. Anyone who knows me will know, I’m not personally the biggest supporter of the BID but I also know how it feels to be the subject of negative social media activity, so I felt the need to investigate. It’s here where things became a little tricky.

No comment

We started reaching out to the signatories: East Street Arts, of course, is the obvious first point of contact as they pushed out the letter in the first place. Then we followed that with direct messages to some of the artists. One after another either had no reply or more commonly had no comment. Only one had anything to say and then decided they would prefer not to be on record. It’s incredibly difficult to write a balanced piece when one party doesn’t talk. I started to feel like this wasn’t particularly well planned. Clearly, no spokesperson had been appointed and it wasn’t just us – the YEP put out their half-baked piece because they had clearly not been able to communicate with anyone. Increasingly, this felt like someone decided to light the fire then walk away to watch it burn from a distance.

What was going on? The only thing I could glean was the frustration with a lack of comms.  Some if not all of the artists wanted a conversation with the BID and that, for whatever reason, wasn’t happening. Or was it? Depending on which side you spoke to, there was a different story, but without any real proof, I don’t feel compelled to write exactly what we were told and by whom, but what I was hearing was too contradictory for everything to be true. 

The BID’s official response

Having been caught by surprise, the BID’s reaction was slower than some would have liked and when it came in the form of an official statement, even then it wasn’t getting through to everyone. As is the way of the BID, dealing with the Press and of course the sponsors and board members was a priority. Ultimately, they have a reputation to uphold among a select group of people and a responsibility to look after the levy payers, the people who are actually funding these events. 

This stance by the BID can at times feel not as open and inclusive as the language they use suggests. There’s the sense that if you aren’t part of the group then you don’t get to play, and this can be frustrating at times. 

With regard to the letter, it was clear they weren’t going to deal with all the signatories directly and instead adopted a similar approach to the artists and issued their response publicly. Some would inevitably feel like they are being ignored and have voiced this, off the record, of course. I’m not sure if this is the right approach but as I’ve said, the BID work the way they do and to date, it’s not really done them any harm. 

Burning bridges

To an outsider, this increasingly looked like a bridge-burning exercise. What else could it be? Approaching the situation in this way, via an open letter without exhausting other methods first, was only going to produce a negative reaction. This would in no way improve relations; quite the opposite. 

Aims and objectives

If you read the letter you would assume that all the signatories are owed money or feel like they have had their contract broken or terminated. You would also assume that they haven’t heard from the BID and have tried in vain to contact them, thus being forced to take this action. Here are a couple of facts you should probably be aware of.

None of the artists had been told that they wouldn’t be paid for work already carried out.  Far from it.  They were asked via email to submit invoices for that work up until 17 March.

The Festival hadn’t and still hasn’t been officially cancelled; everyone had received an email in March informing them as such. Remember the word postponed at the beginning?  Here’s why that’s important. 

Admittedly, they’re not going to be paid for work they are yet to do; contracts state that final payments will be made upon delivery of the event, so worst case the event moves from being postponed to cancelled, then there are a number of people who will have lost future earnings. With the fear of stating the obvious, so has the majority of the population; there are very few out there who are in a position right now to earn as much money as they would have done. 

The reality is, businesses are failing at an unprecedented rate, job losses are mounting and even the BID themselves are not looking as pretty as some would think. Right now they have around 20% of funds they would normally expect to have available to them at this time of year and are being forced to think about their future and what they need to do to make sure their 20 odd staff have jobs to come back to.

I hate to say it, but there’s a sense of privilege when it comes to the artists.  Yes, they acknowledge that these are difficult times for everyone, but to suggest that they are the ones to take the brunt of this financially is, quite frankly, absurd. 

So, why was this approach taken?  What did the signatories really want? Without any of them willing to speak right now, that remains a mystery. Apparently, three of them at the time of writing the letter were owed money for work already carried out or to reimburse expenses. Of those, one has now been paid, which turned out to be an administrative error on the part of the BID; something they have accepted and communicated directly with the artist. One of the invoices has been part paid but had increased way beyond the original amount quoted and is now being investigated.  The other I’m told will be paid in due course and this has been communicated to the people in question. That leaves a number of signatories who are not owed anything. If it’s not money they seek, then what is it?

Ulterior motive

Depending on who you’ve chatted to over the past couple of years, you’ll have heard differing opinions on the International Festival, mostly with regards to how it’s funded and, more so, who runs it. The latter is interesting: many people don’t fully understand how the event is run and this, for the most part, comes down to the poor comms again.

Some in the arts community would prefer the BID not to be involved, or if they must then purely from a financial perspective, a “give us your money but don’t tell us how to do things” approach is desired. In truth, virtually all artists would agree that the best (corporate) sponsor is the one who just hands over the cash and then leaves well alone.

Maybe that ulterior motive is the desire to have an Arts Festival for Leeds run by artists with little or no involvement from the corporate world. In theory, I like the sound of that – the people likely to be involved would certainly make a good job of it. It just comes down to that matter of funding again.

Art x Suits

Ultimately, artists need the suits and to a lesser degree, the reverse is true. Without the suits, funding would decrease significantly.  In 2017/18, business investment represented 18% of the total investment in arts & culture in the UK. In the North, this increases to 26%. It might not be cool to have the men in suits turning up to your launch event, but beggars can’t be choosers. On the flip side, the suits need a bit more ‘cool’ in their lives, because even though the majority of them aren’t remotely interested personally, they need to appear to be, their customers want them to be and that is what matters. 

There have been high profile stories with the likes of BP and Sackler, whose sponsorship of the arts became at odds with those they tried to support, but this isn’t a thing in Leeds. Ultimately, the arts may not need the help of the corporates in the City, but it undoubtedly makes life easier, and to act in a way that could potentially damage that relationship is both odd and questionable.

The BID’s unofficial response

In stark contrast to the artists, the BID was available to speak. I’ve never had a serious problem communicating with them in the past and this was no different. They might not be that keen on coming forward, but if you are willing to put in the leg work, then it produces the results. Having tried to get hold of Festival Executive Gemma Holsgrove, we discovered that she would be unable to speak owing to furlough. It turns out that’s the case for most of the BID staff, but thankfully not all. 

It’s worth noting here that Gemma would have likely been the first point of contact for all the artists, so it didn’t go unnoticed that having her on furlough during this time could have caused some problems. I think the BID could have acted differently here, at least for a month or so. Having Gemma around to communicate would probably have prevented any feeling that the BID had gone to ground. However, her auto-response and follow up message clearly stated that in the event of her not being available, Martin Dickson was to be contacted. We did just that.

After a 90 minute phone call, I learned a lot more about the situation than their official statement provided. If I’m honest, the statement wasn’t the best, but the conversation helped greatly with writing this piece, and although some of what I was told was once again, off the record, it became increasingly clear that something wasn’t right about this whole situation.

Again, my mind went back to the ‘no comment’ reaction that we had received from the others and that this piece was now destined not to be as balanced as it should, but what else could I do? Some may say don’t write anything at all.  Even some at Leeds Living started to question why I was forging ahead, but if it means that sending out an open letter and then closing ranks will ensure you get what you want, then that creates a dangerous precedent. If the boot had been on the other foot, then the backlash would have been extraordinary, and rightly so.

Why, just why?

Maybe we can blame the lockdown. After all, it’s hard for people right now and when you are up against it you get desperate and when you get desperate you do silly things. Maybe there is that ulterior motive, but without anyone willing to speak, it’s impossible to know. Maybe it was just an ill-advised, poorly orchestrated action by a group of people who didn’t think they had anything to lose. Whatever the reason, bridges have been burned here and there will undoubtedly be some changes to the way the arts are funded in Leeds. 

The fallout

The fallout from all this? It’s hard to tell. The BID is left thinking about how to move forward, and what they can do differently; what does L21 look like, for instance? I would wager it differs a little from what we would have experienced this Spring. Then you have a group of individuals and organisations who will now be looking for other ways to fund their projects in future, but they would have done that anyway; it’s not like the BID fund everything. Some will find the path ahead much easier to travel than others, some may wish they had never crossed that old path to begin with. It remains to be seen what happens after that.

For full disclosure

Neither Leeds Living nor Effective Publishing CIC have received any funding or income of any kind from Leeds BID at any time in its history. 

The people who were contacted to help with writing this piece, in the last 8 days are as follows:

East Street Arts – No reply
Matt Allen, Closed Forum – No comment
Alex Palmer, Riptide – No comment
Lucy Meredith, Tea and Tolerance – No reply
Eleanor Snare, Sex Tapes – No comment
Amy Lord, Lord Whitney – No comment
Gemma Holsgrove, Leeds BID – Unable to comment – furloughed
Martin Dickson, Leeds BID – Commented 

The open letter:

The BID statement:

Paul Simon

As Editor-in-Chief, Paul oversees the implementation and delivery of our content strategy. He's also been known to write the odd article when the need arises.

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