'Everyone has a story, no matter who they are': Wakefield fights austerity with art

Cultural engagement is low in the West Yorkshire city – but a new scheme from music festival Long Division is energising teenagers into careers in the creative industries

In 2011, Dean Freeman was living in Wakefield and writing for music fanzine Rhubarb Bomb. While he found plenty of gigs happening locally, he wanted to stage something more ambitious, so he cashed in his £1,000 pension from manning the phones for the NHS to start his own festival. Despite the limited live music infrastructure in the West Yorkshire city, over the last eight years Long Division has hosted acts including the Fall, Billy Bragg and the Cribs. Asian Dub Foundation and the former New Order bassist Peter Hook played the 2019 edition last weekend.

The success of the festival has led Freeman to invest in Wakefield’s next generation. Its pilot education programme #YoungTeam aims to prepare a group of six 16–19-year-olds for a GCSE-level qualification in delivering sustainable, community-minded events. The only prerequisite for applicants is a Wakefield postcode.

Independent thinktank Centre for Cities reports that Wakefield was among the UK cities worst affected by austerity this decade, and that residents tended to have fewer qualifications than in the rest of Britain.

Freeman hopes that the initiative helps raise awareness of the city’s cultural offerings and gives people a reason to stay, keeping its future in local hands. “I maybe have a chip on my shoulder or a bee in my bonnet about organisations in Wakefield where the people at the top are not from Wakefield,” he says. “They’ve moved to Wakefield to do the job.”

#YoungTeam students focus on arts leadership, alongside the development of creative skills and career plans. Since lessons began in February, they have exhibited animation and photography and given spoken-word performances, during the bi-monthly cross-venue event Artwalk Wakefield. Freeman and Bateson have taken the students to local organisations such as the Hepworth, Wakefield Jazz and the Festival of Food, Drink and Rhubarb, and arranged speed interviews with creatives such as record label owners and textile artists.

Young people taking part in the #YoungTeam programme as part of Long Division festival in Wakefield.
‘I’m doing something a lot better with my time’ … the #YoungTeam at work. Photograph: Andrew Benge

During a classroom discussion at Wakefield College, students reflect on their experiences, soundtracked by Freeman and Bateson’s eclectic playlists. “Only just this year I’ve realised what you can do in Wakefield,” says #YoungTeam student Lucy Quinn. “I didn’t know Henry Boons [pub] does a poetry night, I didn’t even know where [live music venue] Warehouse 23 was. Now I’m a lot more aware of where things are in Wakefield, of what I can be doing.” Quinn encouraged her classmates to attend a poetry night with her. “We got to perform, which I would have never done otherwise. I’d have literally been at home, on my phone.”

While nearby destinations such as the Hepworth and Yorkshire Sculpture Park are well-known nationally, local cultural engagement per resident is lower than in nearby districts York, Craven and Leeds. Arts Council England found that the young people least likely to engage in arts and culture come from less privileged backgrounds, and face financial and confidence barriers. But an Arts Connect report suggests the sector’s definitions of arts and culture should be widened to better resonate with young people’s broader perspectives. “I wonder if the local council think going to gigs is cultural,” Freeman says. “What they really mean is high culture. Music is so accessible, it’s not a scary artform.”

An art project as part of the #YoungTeam programme.
‘The opportunity is huge’ … a #YoungTeam art project. Photograph: Andrew Benge

Quinn volunteered at Long Division alongside her classmates as an artist liaison, and will exhibit Humans of Wakefield, her own photography project inspired by a visit to a care home and the Instagram feed Humans of Leeds. “The opportunity is huge,” she says. “Humans of Wakefield aims to show that everyone has a story, no matter who they are.”

Quinn says that participating in #YoungTeam alongside her college courses has helped her learn to manage her time more effectively. “I’m doing something a lot better with all this free time that I would have had, and that’s quite gratifying. It makes me feel positive.”

As the first run of the education programme nears completion, Freeman hopes it will return. “This kind of programme is needed in Wakefield; understanding the perspectives of young people in our city has been invaluable. We’re really proud of what we’ve achieved on a shoestring budget, just using our own local knowledge and experience – and we’re proud of the young people and what they’ve achieved. Above all, we want to do it again, improve it and grow it because the potential impact is huge.” Expect art, music and poetry to join rhubarb as the area’s chief exports.


Tayyab Amin

The GuardianTramp

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