The arts: does it have a future in Leicester?
As Leicester prepares to elect a mayor (or should I say re-elect?) it is a good time to think about the role that the arts and music might (or should) play in the future of Leicester.
I say ‘the arts’ but let me be quick to clarify that the way I use that term, is quite different from its usual use. For me the arts includes music, entertainment, heritage and many other aspects of culture. It might be a convenient label but what I do not mean by it is arts as in painting, drawings or any other form of the kind of fine arts that are too frequently associated with the proclivities of middle class intellectuals.
For me the arts is an inclusive phrase that encompasses the wide diversity of cultural interests and in this city that stands for a lot. It most certainly includes the creative industries -something for which Leicester has an outstanding reputation.
The arts – broadly defined – plays a key role in the city’s economy – more so now than at any time in the past. Many people would acknowledge the contribution that the whole Richard III thing has done for the city; so too, many would salute the impact on the city of the Comedy Festival. Leicester might have significant sporting achievements and it is might be the case that some aspects of sport also bring wealth to the city. I am not the best one to ask about sport.
Of all the arts, various defined, music stands out where Leicester is concerned. I have long argued that music is the biggest sector of the arts – in terms of the proportion of public engagement and in terms of its contribution to the overall economy. The loss of the Summer Sundae music festival was a blow for the city. Each year it brought a lot of people into the city and was probably the most valuable cultural asset we had after the comedy festival. Sadly, there are no plans, that I know of, to replace it with another national music event. The Simon Says festival is great for showcasing and celebrating our local talent but it largely engages only local music fans. People should be heading into Leicester to witness the amazing spread and quality of our local bands and singers; sadly this is not happening. What keeps Leicester out of the major tours of the big national and international acts is the small size of our venues. Leicester simply does not have a big enough venue to attract major music acts.
Two of the biggest festivals in the country take place in Derbyshire. Even Nottingham has a bigger pull for music fans from around the country. If we cannot attract commercial finance for a large arena, then plan B should be to use our valuable public spaces (Victoria and Abbey parks) for a music festival that would place the city on the national map.
Open-air events take place in the city throughout the summer. Our city is fortunate in having the infrastructure to host large-scale indoor festivals – as the comedy festival ably demonstrates. The city has a wealth of small venues and audiences seem to like the intimacy of crowded rooms for comedy and music shows. We have three venues that can host audiences of up to two thousand and one that can seat up to 800. That is roughly speaking enough to mount a major festival for music or other forms of arts.
What helps Leicester is its transport infrastructure. Good train connections and motorways makes it a destination that is relatively easy to get to. Much more needs to be done to plan and integrate out transport networks but as they stand they are not that bad. Within the city there is a fairly good bus service, at least up to 10:30pm. Late night public transport to and from the city centre is an issue that needs a lot of work; the night-time economy is important but for some reason the bus companies cannot seem to make a profit from running buses after 10.30pm.
The Mayoral candidates were asked, on the Radio Leicester hustings programme, where they thought Leicester would be in ten years time. This was asked right at the end of the programme’s allotted time and each candidate could make only a one sentence reply. What a wasted opportunity. I would have started with that question; it would have challenged each of the seven hopefuls to set out their vision for the future of Leicester. if you are going to elect someone to run the city (that is more or less what the role of Mayor entails) then the one thing you want to know is whether they do in fact have a vision for its future. You also want to know if their vision makes sense. Even if you do not agree with the idea of a city having a powerful Mayor, you have to accept that (for now at least) we have one. What I most wanted to know from each of those seven candidates was whether they had a vision for the future of the city. The hour-long debate (or perhaps cross examination) did give us a few clues as to what these people think are the issues for Leicester. There were a few moments of decisive thinking but a lot of what they said was party rhetoric or their own idiosyncratic musings.
It is good that we have had Mayoral hustings. It is good that we are able to vote and have a choice of candidates (not all of them represent the mainstream parties) but it sad that the candidates were not offering robust or credible visions of what they could do to make Leicester more successful than it is. Most of the candidates (except one) were uninspiring and weak on vision and experience. Let us hope that whoever gets elected will see the arts and music as being important to the city’s future – all of the arts and not just some blinkered take on what we think the arts is or might become.
News about the 2015 general election
Politicians and the arts