In Conversation With Gemma Holsgrove

“The ideas of tomorrow, now.” Gemma Holsgrove on why 2019 is the year of revolution for Leeds International Festival.

It’s early March. The sun has made an appearance four out of seven days this week, and there’s still a glimmer of light in the sky when Leeds’ nine-to-fivers turn out. There’s promise in the air at last, and it seems like the perfect time for a conversation about new ideas and innovation.

You may well recognise those words in connection with one of the City’s most exciting events. Leeds International Festival, the ten-day celebration of insight and talent preparing to light up Leeds from the 2nd May, has become synonymous with the springtime feeling that anything is possible.

Now in its third year, Leeds International Festival is gearing up for a ‘change year’; a year to set the tone for its future identity, with its most diverse mosaic of events yet, and a dedicated leader at the helm for the first time.

Gemma Holsgrove

I sit down with Gemma Holsgrove, Leeds International Festival Executive, who came on board a mere three months ago. She has an unstoppable energy about her – an air of positive momentum that I immediately trust is enough to carry the Festival from planning to execution, in 2019 and beyond.

‘The aim of the Festival is to bring people together and raise aspirations,’ she says, ‘I’ve seen how the power of arts and culture can inspire people, and this is about celebrating what Leeds has to offer.’

The 2019 programme introduces a new system, with major events labelled ‘Core’ and fringe events labelled ‘Off’. It’s not about saying one’s more important than the other; it’s about distinguishing forms of expression to help festival-goers improve their experience.

‘Core is very much world leaders, thinkers, talks, discussions and debates,’ Gemma explains, ‘and Off is everything in between – eclectic, noisy, banging-on-the-door stuff that expresses people’s views on the world in a completely different way. There’ll be something that appeals to everyone.’

Part of the reason for this change is the new ‘open-call’ submission process for this year’s event, which meant not only a staggering volume of applications, but also a more topical spectrum of events routed in the here and now, and the future.

‘It’s about responding to the needs of the community,’ says Gemma, telling me how the open call has enabled them to cast the net wider and give more people a platform. ‘I do think it’s our responsibility to showcase the subjects and ideas of tomorrow, now,’ she says, ‘and with an open call, you’re allowing that.’

The majority of the Festival’s 30-plus events is still under wraps, but Gemma and I talk about what’s been announced so far. She tells me about What Does It Mean to be Human?, an exploratory journey of an event charting the meaning of the human condition.

Monk – Gelong Thubten

‘You start off with a monk talking about his experiences, then you move onto Alice Roberts talking about the history of humans’, says Gemma. ‘Then, you look at alternative ways of being human, and you end up with Matt Haig, who takes a personal approach to what it’s like in this age.’

That event alone exemplifies the mix of ideas and mindsets that weave the Festival’s rich tapestry this year. Another highlight is Juicebox, which returns for an alternative late-night soiree with Live Art Bistro, with Tommy Cash and Yves Tumour on the bill.

People’s poet, John Cooper Clarke, is set to deliver words of unconventional wisdom on 8th May, while BlaqueExplosion – a collaboration with the Black Health Initiative – will explore black and black British culture in a day of talks, workshops, music and celebration, with Frank Bruno, MBE discussing music and black mental health.

‘Mental health and wellbeing has been a really strong theme this year,’ says Gemma, talking about how 2019 has shaped up. ‘We’ve also had a lot of spoken word submissions – using that as a form of getting people’s voices out. The Festival’s responding to what matters to people now – it feels really organic.’

And as for where exactly this is all set to come to life – well, that’s where fans of the 2017 and 2018 editions of the Festival will see another change. ‘We’ve decided that it’s time for us to have a hub of activity,’ Gemma smiles, telling me how they’re teaming up with The Tetley to create a village site on its brewery green. ‘We’re going to have a big, pink, inflatable cube,’ she says. ‘Of course we are!’

Tetley Brewery Green

The site in question is owned by Vastint – one of the key sponsors alongside LeedsBID – and will form a central, malleable venue space. ‘One day it’ll be set out for a talk, then the next day, there’ll be 600 people there for a gig,’ Gemma enthuses.

Along with the iconic pink cube, and other venues right across the City, this year’s Festival will bring to life a Discovery Zone on Briggate, where a series of shipping containers will give people – from families to office workers on a lunch break – the chance to drop in and hear a talk or be involved in a workshop.

As the Festival comes to life before my eyes, it’s clear that 2019 is going to be a pretty groundbreaking year – a year that places collaboration, originality and the voice of the people at the heart more than ever before.

And when we touch on the multitude of other events kicking off on the Leeds cultural scene, Gemma’s attitude is refreshingly open. ‘There’s so much going on in the City – we’re not here to duplicate or to take away from what other people are doing,’ she says, telling me how the Festival’s work with Transform 19 and machina Ex has brought to life Rewire, an interactive game event that allows players to rediscover the City from a new perspective.

Talk turns to the future, and Gemma’s ambitions are set high. ‘I’m excited to see the energy from the Festival ignite in other people, and see what opportunities that can give in the future,’ she says, telling me how in five years’ time, she hopes Leeds International Festival will be thought of as a place to go to listen to the world leaders of tomorrow.

‘We’re carving ourselves out as the leading ideas and innovation Festival – challenging the way people approach things, their preconceptions, and perhaps the way we live,’ Gemma hits on the Festival’s wider purpose – an event with the power to break through the everyday, transcend barriers and unite us as a City, as friends.

‘I want to collaborate with as many people as possible, open as many opportunities as possible…’ Gemma pauses to reflect on the ten days of frenzied creativity that draw ever closer: ‘It’s about looking ahead to the world of tomorrow, before we’ve even got there.’

The Festival’s full programme of events will be announced on Friday 15 March at The Tetley.

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