How does the atmosphere of a city influence people working in the creative and cultural sectors? Which places are important in creating and sustaining the city’s “buzz”?
Samuel Stockley is walking and talking with people in the creative and cultural sectors as part of his research for a PhD at the University of Leeds. He was immediately receptive when I suggested a (short) walk to talk about the accessibilty – or in many cases, inaccessibility – of many of the buzz-y places of Leeds and the challenges to disabled creative people that this presents.
I didn’t want the walk to focus on negatives; in any case, this would have been at odds with Sam’s research. So we stuck to the eastern edges of the city centre, starting at West Yorkshire Playhouse, taking a short detour to Live Art Bistro (LAB), where Shoddy will be shown, then on to the city’s oldest streets, Kirkgate, Wharf Street and Cross York Street, behind Leeds Market.
Incidentally, LAB is a five minute walk from the Playhouse entrance. There are dropped kerbs en route, but there’s no pavement at all on the exit from the Playhouse car park. So in theory it’s navigable, but take care.
There were a few significant locations on this route to give a bit of context to our walk and talk, apart from LAB. Turning back from LAB, on our way to cut through the bus station, we were in the shadow of the new Victoria Gate shopping centre, whose exterior is designed to reflect Leeds’ textile heritage.
I’d considered doing part of the walk by bus to get to the other side of town, but it was a fine day and a gentle stroll, plus we didn’t need to be reminded of Leeds’ cultural monoliths of the library, town hall and art gallery. I’d wanted to make the point that disabled artists’ events, or those organised with disabled people in mind, generally happen in these mainstream venues because those are amongst the small number of places which disabled people can get into. It was enough to start at the Playhouse, then mention those other institutions, for the point to be obvious.
The rest of the walk was in area around Kirkgate, full of character, if run-down in parts. We passed alternative and independent venues that have made efforts to be accessible and inclusive, contrasted with other spaces, often DIY or temporary art spaces, that are, for example, up many flights of steps. I wish that no- or low-rent premises weren’t so often in inaccessible attics or basements, or in lovely old buildings entered via steep stone steps. And I wish that more artists and arts organisations would think about accessibility before they take on buildings and premises. I’m being quite measured in my language rather than ranting, because I do know how difficult it can be to find suitable premises. Organising accessible events on a budget in a disabling society can be really hard! But if you organise events that aren’t accessible, you’re contributing to the problem and making life hard for disabled artists and other disabled people who want to be part of the buzz.
Wharf Chambers Cooperative Club stands out as a beacon of inclusivity, affordability and a warm and friendly safe space. They show that having the commitment to do something and a positive attitude, rather than loads of money, can achieve this. Wharf Chambers is one of the most exciting cultural venues in the city centre, a good place to end our walk.
I came away from the walk feeling assured that LAB is a great venue for Shoddy, and not just because it’s got a ramped entrance. It’s another exciting, alternative venue. On our walk, Sam and I had discussed that if you want to create something edgy, that challenges the mainstream, then you can’t do that in a mainstream venue. You need to work with people who understand that, who support what you’re doing. Here’s to the rough-and-ready, the DIY, the underground – as long as there’s a ramp or a lift.
For more information about Sam and his research, see www.samuelstockley.com