What makes Leeds culture great? Find out what people from some of Leeds most beloved venues have to say.

24th May 2022

Proud to be Leeds

One thing Leeds prides itself on is its diversity. We’re a city where grand historic architecture sits alongside the latest sustainable living. Where unsigned bands play down the road from the world’s biggest pop stars. Where independent shops mix with the biggest brands. So it’s no surprise that, when it comes to culture, we don’t keep our creative spirit locked away. That’s why we call Leeds a city with culture around every corner.

This pride runs through our cultural scene, embodied by the people, places and institutions that make Leeds such a special place to live, visit and work. Hundreds of personal stories, all part of a bigger tale. Each one revealing something unique and exciting about Leeds, attracting cultural heritage tourism through the best visitor attractions, family experiences, museums, galleries, music, festivals, theatres, performances and restaurants.

Playing to the crowd

It’s an attitude that’s central to some of Leeds’ most prized cultural institutions. Just like award-winning Opera North, where chorus member Molly Barker, has found herself inspired by representing her local community on stage.

“As a chorister, you often play a crowd member”, Molly tells us, “which means that in many operas, the Leeds community is represented on stage by the Chorus, unbeknown to them!”.

Taking culture to the streets is an ambition shared by Kate Freston-Davy, Opera North’s Head of Stage Management.

“The culture of our city is unique. It’s benefited from the historic wealth that facilitated the building of concert hall, galleries, theatres and music venues, which are still in use today”, Kate suggests. But Leeds’ cultural life is about more than heritage. It’s just as much about “the streets of the city throughout the year, in the live music bars, the food festivals and seasonal events which are accessible to all.”

For Molly, culture is about finding space where you can thrive – where passions, beliefs and oddities aren’t just accepted, but celebrated and given space to flourish.

“I always loved playing dress up as a kid, and now that’s what I do for a living! It’s a pretty sweet deal.” It’s a passion shared by Kate too. “Opera is a musical event, and music is THE universal language. Add drama, comedy, tragedy, costumes, lights and a set and you’ve created a whole new world. How lucky I am to have the job I do.”

Moving with the times

Over at the ground-breaking Northern Ballet, Head of Planning Tobias Perkins finds much to celebrate in the accessibility of Leeds’ cultural life.

“Across all sizes and scales, Leeds is thriving. There’s a youthful energy to this place. It constantly renews itself.” It’s a scene driven by transformation. “So much has changed, in the fabric of the buildings, from the city I first knew. And that’s mirrored by its cultural development.”

In common with cultural neighbours Opera North, Northern Ballet is an institution dedicated to widening participation.

“As a planner”, Tobias enthuses, “I love having the opportunity to bring audiences on a journey of discovery; whether it’s their first experience of the visceral thrill of live dance, or nurturing a lifelong passion and identity.”

Sound and vision

Culture means lots of things, to lots of people. That’s one thing Leeds’ scene really thrives on, from the most prestigious tickets to an international symphony orchestra at the Town Hall, to a sold-out secret gig by the next hot Indie band at Brudenell Social Club. To Cat Lane, Gallery Assistant at Leeds University Library Galleries,

it’s about “beliefs, ideas, history, experiences and traditions of a person or community. Culture brings people together through shared experiences and ideas. It makes connections.”

Cat’s own cultural connections, for example, come from their love of arts and heritage.

“In particular, I connect with other LGBTQIA+ people through our shared experiences and participation in queer culture, both online and in person”, they tell us. “The diversity of the city means there’s something that interests everyone, and countless ways to get involved.”

Over at cherished independent cinema, Hyde Park Picture House, Operations and Programme Manager Robb Barham agrees that connection is key.

“That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of barriers to culture, through historical and contemporary power, financial and societal structures that prevent people from sharing their stories”, Robb warns, “But part of my role is to demystify and democratise cultural practice. Sometimes that means challenging audiences.”

Power in participation

It might seem that a cinema and an art gallery are all about passive viewership – taking in culture from the safety of a picture frame or cinema screen. But for both Cat and Robb, getting hands on is what Leeds’ cultural scene is all about. As part of an exhibition showcasing the diversity of non-binary identity, Cat helped their own community find an artistic outlet.

“I was able to bring together a non-binary community in Leeds, showcasing art to the world and challenging the cisgender-heteronormative white male dominance in art”, Cat says.

Robb finds himself in a similar position as the co-organiser of Scalarama Leeds, a DIY support network that facilitates and promotes an alternative film exhibition.

“Culture for me exists in the connections between those that create art and those that experience it, whether individually or as a communal activity. Film is uniquely placed to facilitate this interaction due to the flexibility of the medium, which has become increasingly easier to create, discover and exhibit.”

Finding Leeds’ voice

What lessons can we learn from these champions of our city’s cultural life? That Leeds is a place where culture belongs to everyone. Performers and artists, locals and visitors, audiences and participants. It’s not just that opportunities to get involved are abundant – though they are. It’s that those opportunities are what makes Leeds great!

Every community, every social background and every identity can find a place that sounds and looks like them, or that has a story to tell that might just expand their horizons.

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