In Conversation With Ruth Pitt

On the back of the successful Music:Leeds forum at the Town Hall, Jim Phelps sits down with the recently appointed Chair of Leeds 2023, Ruth Pitt.

Can you tell us about the Leeds 2023 culture plan and how you fit into it?

Leeds 2023 is a part of the Leeds cultural strategy. We are in the process of setting up the trust, which is going to be independent, and I’m putting a board together. We’re actually appointing a Creative Director at the moment and we’re at the shortlist stage, so until we’ve got our creative director in place we don’t want to jump the gun and decide our own vision. The timeline is that by this summer we will know who our creative director is going to be and we will then devise our vision and then start making our plan.

We’ve got a core plan, which is how we’ll build our team and build our activities during the next few years leading up to the year of fantastic cultural activities in 2023. Exactly what we’re doing and where we’re going to be doing it will be an ongoing process, starting in the middle of this year. That’s the best way I can describe it really. We’re at a very early stage now. Everything’s agreed and we’ve got a significant amount of the money already in place, both from the City Council and from fantastic business support right across the City. So once we’ve got our creative director we can prioritize building our team.

Towards the end of last year, there was the sad announcement that Leeds wasn’t able to compete to be the European Capital of Culture.  Has that affected the plans in any way?

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that it would be a devastating blow? I think what was extraordinary about that moment, and this was before I was directly involved, there was a moment of disappointment and a moment of sadness but the process of putting together that incredible bid had been so unifying for the City. So many different partners had realized how much Leeds deserved and needed this cultural work that people just realized it was a no brainer in a way. People just realized ‘Well, this is what our City needs anyway so let’s go ahead and do it’. In some ways,we’re unconstrained by anything to do with being a European city of culture so we can include sport, which is really important to our City, and we can do the things that we feel a right for our City and our region. So I think everybody feels really excited about it now. I think it was a wake-up call, it was a catalyst, and now we’re really motoring. It’s an extraordinary position to be in, for a city like Leeds to be building something so positive around culture at a time when lots of other people are cutting back. I think we’ve got a lot to be proud of.

So is this unprecedented in a way?

Well, do you know I think it may be! I wouldn’t like to stick my neck out and say I can’t think of any other time this has happened, but it’s certainly on an enormous scale and it is something that I think will be incredibly beneficial to the City. Obviously, there are economic benefits because it would increase the profile of the City, there will be more tourism, there will be more culture in the City for the people of the City, but also a huge amount of what we’re going to be doing is around community engagement. I always like to say culture is free and so much of it is, so a big priority for us will be making sure that people across the City in all types of areas and all communities will be able to benefit from the activities that we’re going to arrange for them.

So we’re talking about some of the different parts of culture. You spoke at the Music:Leeds event the other day, but what are some of the other areas that have been identified for the Leeds 2023 plan?

I can’t describe to you how many interesting projects are coming before me. People in the City from loads of different disciplines are seeing an opportunity to find a platform for what they do. There are big theatre projects in the pipeline – we’re talking to Slung Low, the theatre company, which by the way I just think is extraordinary! They’ve taken over the Holbeck Working Men’s Club and that is a fantastic example of everything from Shakespearean actors being on the stage to fire-eaters. There was a cabaret event there a few days ago. In a way it’s like a microcosm of everything we want Leeds 2023 to be, which is from grassroots cultural activities to high art. People will benefit in so many ways from that. So it’s not just music: it’s theatre, it’s sculpture, we’ve got Yorkshire Sculpture International happening this summer, Transform, the performance festival that’s happening…..There are so many activities across literature, writing, performance. We’ll be working closely with all the big institutions: Northern Ballet, Opera North,  Phoenix Dance Theatre, Northern School of Contemporary Dance, Leeds Playhouse. So really it’s everything – every kind of cultural activity in this City from dancing to writing will be on our agenda.

You mentioned sport earlier as well.

Yes! Well, I think that sport is a very important part of our culture isn’t it? And in Leeds it’s an incredibly important part of our culture: whether it’s rugby, whether it’s cricket, whether it’s football or whether it’s Tour de Yorkshire. You name it, we are a sporting city. There are very few cities that could outdo us on that front, I think. I’m incredibly keen to engage with all the different sporting fans across the City and find ways to give them a platform for what they want to do. There’s no end to the engagement that we can find through sport, so that’s something which is very important to us.

How did you become involved with Music:Leeds?

Music:Leeds is one of the many projects that we have supported already. There was seed funding of £20,000 to get Music:Leeds off the ground and that’s something that we’re reaping the benefits from now in seeing the more unified strategy developing for the music industry across the City. Whether it’s about artists performing, or whether it’s about growing the business of music, or whether it’s about tourism and entertainment. A brilliant idea. A brilliant example. Music:Leeds is one of the many things that we can be a catalyst for. We can intervene in a small way and then big things can happen as a result. I’m assuming you were at Music:Leeds?


It was amazing to see such a diversity of people there.

It was great.

It was fantastic, wasn’t it, and the work that Whiskas is doing is amazing and I think he’s inspiring himself. He’s got a good story himself but he also really knows that sector. People like that are really important to Leeds 2023 because they really are familiar with what people in the City really want and what they’re doing and what they need. What we’re not going to be doing is just coming in and imposing a series of cultural and creative activities on the City. What we’re doing will grow out of that and that will include big global artists. When people say to me sometimes ‘Well, you know it’s all very well to have some really famous artists come to the City, but what does that do for the people of the City?’ Well, the next global artist might be growing up in Holbeck right now, and I want people to have aspiration and if we just look in on ourselves we won’t have that ambition to reach the world. I think that this is a fantastic showcase for the people of our City to show the rest of the world what they can do.

I really agree with you. It’s really refreshing to hear someone say that it’s coming from the ground up rather than top down.

Yes, definitely. Some of our most important themes are around working with schools, particularly with so many cutbacks in cultural areas in schools and on the curriculum. We feel that our aim is to try to engage every child in school in Leeds by 2023. Not every child will be interested but a lot of children will be. There’s no overnight recipe for success, but there are always moments in your growing up where suddenly you think ‘wow’ and you might go to see a drama performed, or you might go to a concert or you might read a book that suddenly has a pivotal effect on your life. What we’re trying to do is be a catalyst in the lives of the children in Leeds because they’re the adults of tomorrow, aren’t they? And it’s not somewhere else. It’s us. This is not happening somewhere else, this is happening here and here is us. To me, the local is as important if not more important than the global.

One of the things discussed at Music:Leeds was the gender and equal rights advocacy group GREAAT. You’re involved with that if I’m not mistaken?

Well, I haven’t been actively involved with it yet and until April I’m Chair Elect. What I’ve been doing in the last three or four months is just finding out about lots of different groups in the City, familiarizing myself with some of the people who are making things happen in the City, also setting up a trust and setting up the basic board, and then the process of finding a creative director, working out some of our strategic ideas. So from April onwards we’ll start being more actively involved.

I think the gender equality issue in music is absolutely essential because it’s almost anachronistic that it’s so male-dominated, and it’s something that’s so much to do with young… know there’s a good vibe around contemporary music, and it does seem in line with what music is all about. That it should have such a gender imbalance…..  We’re very, very keen on supporting that and we’ll do everything we can to make sure that gender equality, not just in music but also in everything else, is improved as a result of this. This is something that I personally care about very much actually and I’ve always in my own life and career been a great advocate of building better equality, particularly gender equality but also other kinds and levelling the playing field. If we don’t have gender equality of music then there’s no hope for us is there, really?

Well, I completely agree. It was one of the issues that was discussed in the breakout sessions at Music:Leeds and it was really, really popular. A professor I spoke to who works at Huddersfield University is doing research into groping and sexual assaults at venues and how widespread it is. It’s pretty terrifying – as a man you don’t experience any of this.

It’s really surprising, isn’t it, because it’s not a sector where you would expect to see such discrimination. There is a lot to address. It’s so funny, isn’t it, that people still raise an eyebrow if you see a female drummer in a band and that’s an incredible assumption? Why would a drummer not be female? There’s a lot of work to do and it’s fantastic that that’s one of the priorities of Music:Leeds.

We had a talk from Amy Lamé who’s the Night Czar of London. She mentioned the importance of changing the conversation around music and around culture from one about the costs, to one about the benefits that can it can realise. How do we do that in Leeds?

I often think when you see performers, musical performance..… I often think to myself there is a freedom in performing music. There is a form of very direct expression in making music, whatever the kind of music it may be. What we’ve got to do is really engage with performers and artists and get them sharing their experiences with people who maybe don’t have access. There are some really scary figures around the drop in the number of people who have access to a musical instrument for instance, and Amy is absolutely right: we do have to change the conversation. One of the reasons we have to change the conversation is because there is a lot of appropriation of cultural activities by people who’ve got the resources to buy the instruments, or pay for the lessons, or go to the concerts or make journeys to the festivals. You have to start with the widest number of people possible and I think one of the great things that we can do as an intervention is find ways that musicians, or indeed artists or sculptors or actors, can work more closely with people to give them an opportunity.  Like just getting your hands on a violin for instance. I mean I personally don’t remember getting my hands on a violin as a child.  Maybe I could have been a great violinist – you’ll never know! It’s giving genuine, real access to people at important stages in their lives.

I often think it’s not just listening to music but just singing a song..…I was hearing something just this morning on the radio about Gareth Malone, the choirmaster, who does a lot of documentaries, and he’s just worked with a school that’s right beside the Grenfell Tower. The kids in the school have done amazing work remembering their friends who died in the Grenfell Tower, and the power of music to comfort people in those difficult circumstances. There are lots of refugee groups in our City who are doing work with music and art, and to be able to express yourself using whatever feels most comfortable to you, whether it’s writing, whether it’s singing, whether it’s playing an instrument, those things are immensely comforting. I feel really strongly about this, that in times of economic cutback and when times are hard for people, that’s when people feel the least heard. Although it might seem like an indirect connection, I think that culture is a way of people being heard and getting their voices across. So when it seems like it might be the least important thing, in some ways it’s the most important thing, and that’s what we’ve got to try to do in the next five years

I think it cuts through a lot of the nonsense in the way. It’s the direct expression of people, isn’t it?

And it makes people sit up and take notice.  Just hearing a little clip of this young girl singing a song about her friend who died in Grenfell Tower is immensely arresting and it reminds everybody what people are going through. I think that’s a really good example of how you could use art and culture to express frustrations and anger and all the things that we need to get off our chests to feel better about ourselves as a society.

Sure. Well, I was going to ask you about nurturing the next generation and that was my next question but you’ve nicely pre-empted that.

I know that Tom Riordan [Chief Exec for Leeds City Council] is incredibly supportive of this idea. Reaching young people in our schools is absolutely crucial to what we’re going to be doing.

There’s a really engaging programme here. If people want to help out, how do they get involved? I’m also talking about myself here!

Fantastic! Anybody can contact us on that and we have now got people who are looking at that. As soon as our creative director’s appointed we’ll have a better idea of how we want to engage people. We definitely want to hear what people have got to say. We’re definitely looking out for volunteers and we will have a volunteer strategy. We will have a pool of people who we’ll talk to, to find out different ways that we can work with people and engage them. This is all part of the strategy I’ll work out with the creative director which is: how do we make sure we’re talking to the right people, reaching the right people, hearing from the right people? So just literally register your interest on the Leeds 2023 website. Tell us what you are interested in doing and then we will be processing all those very shortly.

Please do get involved! 

That’s wonderful. Thanks so much for your time, Ruth.

It’s a pleasure.

You can read about the recent Leeds:Music Forum here.

Feature photograph by Andrew Benge.  

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