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Leeds £35m investment programme to celebrate the city’s vibrant diversity in 2023

PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 June 2018

Opera North plans ambitious redevelopment of the Howard Assembly Room into a world-class arts venue

Opera North plans ambitious redevelopment of the Howard Assembly Room into a world-class arts venue

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Snubbed by the European Commission, West Yorkshire’s cultural capital comes out swinging. Watch out world!

An artist impression of the new foyer planned for West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds Artwork: Page Park An artist impression of the new foyer planned for West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds Artwork: Page Park

You’ve planned a killer party, got RSVPs from the great and the good, chosen a fabulous outfit and are just putting on your last sweep of lippy before heading out the door. Then you get a text. The party is off. No, actually it’s worse than that. The party is still on, but you’re not invited. Persona non blummin’ grata.

So, what do you do? You could be forgiven for slinking away to lick your wounds in a darkened room with a bottle of Jack Daniels in one hand and a family bag of Monster Munch in the other. But not Leeds. When the European Commission cancelled the city’s invitation to bid for the 2023 European Capital of Culture title, it opted to go large rather than go home.

Since the shock news broke, cultural organisations, businesses and leisure leaders across Leeds have announced a raft of exciting new ventures, events and developments, all designed to underline the unassailable fact that when you knock Loiners down, we get right back up again.

Leeds has announced a £35m investment programme, culminating in a year-long celebration of the city’s vibrant diversity in 2023 (as fightbacks go, it’s a doozy, isn’t it?). Riding the tidal wave of energy and momentum created by the city’s original European Capital of Culture bid, the council is working in partnership with the private sector and Arts Council England to host events in all 33 wards.

Leeds has announced a £35million investment programme in the South Bank providing 'vibrant places to live, work and enjoy' Leeds has announced a £35million investment programme in the South Bank providing 'vibrant places to live, work and enjoy'

Among the highlights already announced is a major new collaborative sculpture project – Yorkshire Sculpture International – featuring work by renowned artists, new commissions for public spaces and an engagement programme delivered by Leeds Art Gallery, Henry Moore Institute, The Hepworth Wakefield and Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

There will also be major outdoor performances by the new Leeds Peoples Theatre and a full-size lighthouse – a lighthouse! – in the South Bank area.

‘Undoubtedly, it was a huge blow when Leeds was denied the chance to bid to become European Capital of Culture in 2023,’ said Judith Blake, leader of the city council. ‘But we were determined not to see the unprecedented enthusiasm and energy which built up behind the bid go to waste.

‘The bid was a tremendous catalyst for a whole new cultural conversation across our city which, in turn, has sparked some incredibly original and inventive ideas among communities, artists, businesses and the public.’

Gursimran Kaur Virdee and Simar Preet Kaur Rayatt, musicians from the South Asian Arts UK Youth Ensemble play on the main stage at the Leeds 2023 launch party Photo Joan Russell Gursimran Kaur Virdee and Simar Preet Kaur Rayatt, musicians from the South Asian Arts UK Youth Ensemble play on the main stage at the Leeds 2023 launch party Photo Joan Russell

Among the tranche of key cultural innovations announced in the wake of the 2023 bombshell is Opera North’s ambitious redevelopment of the Howard Assembly Room into a world-class arts venue.

Currently something of a hidden gem accessed via Leeds Grand Theatre, the opera company wants to give it its own dedicated entrance and box office, a new restaurant and bar in what is currently a row of vacant shop units in New Briggate, an education centre, improved front-of-house facilities and an atrium linking everything together.

Opera North is one of England’s largest creative companies and a major artistic force in the city, employing more than 250 people including electricians, technicians and sound engineers as well as stage managers, costume designers, musicians and filmmakers.

‘This is an exciting time for us as we seek to create a truly world-class arts hub to meet the needs of our audiences, our artistic company and our city,’ said general director Richard Mantle. ‘We believe our extensive research, planning and consultation will result in real enhancement to the civic area, New Briggate and the surrounding Grand Quarter.’

There are also major developments in progress down the hill at the bottom of The Headrow, where a trio of new projects are coming together to create the Quarry Hill Cultural Quarter (don’t you just love a Quarter?).

Work is underway on the new £33million, 11-storey Leeds City College campus, which will house science, computing and digital technology labs, specialist childcare training facilities, lecture theatres, dance, art, film and recording studios and a performance space.

This follows closely on the heels of Leeds College of Music’s new £1.25m library, which recently opened for business (the business of reading and music) in the Quarry Hill Skyline Building, offering public access for the first time to its collection of more than 30,000 items of printed music, 11,000 CDs, 700 DVDs, 8,000 books and 9,000-strong vinyl archive.

‘The new library not only offers a stimulating space for study, but also houses key resources for any burgeoning musician,’ said principal and managing director of Leeds College of Music Gerry Godley. ‘We’re delighted to be able to extend the offering to music lovers across the city – it’s a fantastic addition to the creative and cultural resources of Leeds.’

West Yorkshire Playhouse provides the third point of this cultural triangle with an exciting £13.6million redevelopment programme that will give it a new entrance at the front of the building (it’s been tucked away round the side for the last 27 years), new front-of-house facilities worthy of the theatre’s national stature and a third performance space in the shape of The Rock Void for studio-style work.

This landmark project is part of a recently-announced five-year cultural partnership between the Playhouse and SOYO, part of the Yorkshire-based Caddick Group and lead organisation in the £300million renewal of Quarry Hill as a place to work, live and watch plays. Together, they will launch a Playhouse Pop-Up this autumn, transforming a workshop into a temporary 350-seat performance space while the main theatre is revamped.

‘We’re delighted to work with the Caddick Group and help develop the vision for the SOYO neighbourhood,’ said Playhouse executive director Robin Hawkes. ‘Our redevelopment will generate a new focus for the city and establish a base to attract artists and creatives from across Yorkshire and the North.

‘We’re proud to be partnering with a business that shares our passion for Leeds and our ambition to build the future of the cultural quarter.’

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