Culture group's momentum after Great Exhibition bid

By anyone's estimation, Sheffield prepared a strong bid to host the Great Exhibition of the North in 2018.

Thursday, 13th October 2016, 8:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 25th October 2016, 7:52 pm
Representatives from the Sheffield Culture Consortium - Kim Streets Chief Executive of Museums Sheffield, Dan Bates, Chief Executive of Sheffield Theatres, Councillor Mike Drabble and Professor Vanessa Toulmin

An orchestral commission with the Hallé Orchestra, a new ‘promenade musical’ inspired by the cutlery trade and dozens of activities in city galleries and on Devonshire Green were envisaged if Government ministers gave the go-ahead for the £5 million celebration of arts and industry.

But, in the event, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport chose Newcastle and Gateshead, swayed by the joint bidders’ vision of a 77-day extravaganza themed around the Fires of Invention. However, Sheffield’s culture chiefs are keen to stress the bright future ahead, building on the demanding work required to assemble the application, with its core concept of the region as the Gateway to the North.

The city’s Culture Consortium, set up in 2011 and made up of arts bosses, both universities and the council, as well as others, led the efforts to bring the Great Exhibition to Sheffield.

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Kim Streets, CEO of Museums Sheffield and one of the bid leaders alongside Professor Vanessa Toulmin, Sheffield University’s engagement director, and Dan Bates, head of Sheffield Theatres, said the cultural community had been galvanised and would be able to focus its attentions more effectively.

“The consortium was quite a close team already, we’ve worked together on a number of projects over the last three years,” she said.

“But the intensity of the bid, and the short lead time, has definitely brought us closer. We were a good team before but we’re a tighter team now.”

Ms Streets added: “The conversation has taken place really across the North and across the city region with business leaders, industrial leaders and members of the Local Enterprise Partnership.

“For me that’s really key when we start to think about our economic strategy and the role culture can play in all its forms. We’ve still got momentum, as much as we might be disappointed.

“It’s about making sure we take all of the energy and ideas and turn them into something positive.”

Prof Toulmin promised that Sheffield ‘will do something to celebrate the Great Exhibition’, while Ms Streets went further, floating the idea of a city festival every two years, potentially starting in 2018, focusing on arts and industry.

“There are other things on the horizon,” said the museums CEO.

She said the success of the Year of Making – a year-long celebration looking at Sheffield’s heritage of manufacturing in all its forms – would be used as a template.

“We’re beginning to think, should Sheffield really be thinking about having a biennial festival of arts and industry? We’ve got enough talent, we feel confident about that. I’m putting that idea out there now. I think it’s a strong one and I think we can deliver it.”

Ms Streets said the Department for Culture, Media and Sport would be providing feedback on Sheffield’s application and there was ‘lots of mileage for collaboration’ with the winners.

Funding opportunities were on the way too, including an Arts Council scheme called Cultural Destinations.

She said she felt ‘no animosity’ towards the winners.

“If you look across all of the shortlisted towns and cities, you can see why each in their own way could really use the Great Exhibition of the North.”

Prof Toulmin said: “Lots of things have come out of it. Culture has got more visibility now. The message we can take from the Great Exhibition is that we’re an international city with an amazing offer.”

The professor continued: “I want Newcastle to enjoy it, and when the opportunities arise we will be ready to work with them. Sheffield will continue its journey to being a culturally dynamic, diverse city with international appeal regardless of this. It won’t stop us.”

She cited figures from the university’s recent Festival of the Mind, which attracted 50,000 visitors.

And just last week the consortium appointed a new leader for the next year – Kate Dore of Yorkshire Artspace.

“We see this as an opportunity for the North to act in unison and we look forward to working with Newcastle-Gateshead and the other towns and cities in the north to make it happen,” said Prof Toulmin.

“The bidding process has focused minds and upped the ante in demonstrating city region ambition – the legacy will be to maintain the momentum and to develop and enhance the many exciting cultural and business partnerships that have been forged over the last six months.”

She said the bid had shown Sheffield ‘on the national stage in a different way’. “Our cultural offer is very strong. We did it the Sheffield way. People gave their time freely and came together.”

Sheffield will still play a role in providing elements of the Great Exhibition, along with other Northern towns and cities.

John Mothersole, chief executive of Sheffield Council, said the city was ‘incredibly well-placed to contribute to the exhibition’.

Newcastle and Gateshead’s 77-day extravaganza will have the theme of The Blazing World – The Fires of Invention.

Dedicated walking circuits devoted to arts, design and innovation will be created along with gallery commissions and an opening ceremony featuring a bridge of illuminated drones. The Government will contribute £5m towards the festival and invest £15m in a cultural legacy fund.