“What yer doing?” Hoodie Boy asked as he swaggered into the shop-cum-artists’ workshop in Armley town centre. He and his mate, who had been enjoying a ciggy outside had been intrigued by the happy chatter of other youngsters having fun. I think they thought there might be something more exciting on offer than making Christmas cards and gifts. Possibly beer and cigarettes, or at least some X-Box-related activity.
I was there in the I Love West Leeds Arts Festival‘s shop, taking photos and being generally enthusiastic about all the creativity bouncing around a run-down town which has had a reputation for being anything other than arty. The next time I looked, Hoodie Boy and his mate had pulled up chairs, taken the top of the glitter and were making their own cards, their hard faces cracked into smiles. I was almost moved to tears.
This part of West Leeds is well-loved, though not well-heeled, there’s not much money around, business is not booming and jobs are hard to come by. Educational attainment is not stellar and with high rates of smoking and low rates of exercise and fruit and vegetable consumption, there are health issues. So the annual arts festival and assorted other creative activities come as light relief, inspiration and an opportunity to celebrate the heritage of a proud part of the city. Except that there’s not going to be any more arts festival. There’s no more funding.
Now I don’t want to get political, actually I do, like hell I do. Like bloody hell I do. Let’s say Hoodie Boy’s path was taking him to a bad place, he skipped school, smoked a few fags, maybe something a bit stronger, no job prospects, etc etc etc. Now let’s say one day he walked into a converted shop, made a few Christmas cards, found he could be creative, thought it might help to go back to school and show that nice but rather wacky art teacher the cards and a few other ideas, before he knows it, he’s the next Damien Hirst, that other contemporary Leeds artist. An exaggeration of course, but one of the reasons for funding such a festival in an area of need is to make chances for those who find them hard to come by. The payback is huge, the possibilities are enormous, for the sake of a few thousand pounds a year, it makes economic sense in the long term to encourage Hoodie Boy and his mates, prevention is better than cure. Art is creative, it’s liberating, it’s fun, it makes you feel good about yourself and if you feel good about yourself, you’re more likely to look after yourself and care about what you do. Isn’t that worth ratepayers’ money?
In its decade of life, the I Love West Leeds Arts Festival has brought joy, fun, laughter, entertainment and community spirit to so many people. From washing-line sculptures across the streets to Handel’s Water Music in the swimming baths, it’s been a blast. I also believe it’s changed people’s lives for the better and that includes mine. But that’s another story.
So Saturday was the farewell to the Festival, what will Hoodie Boy do now?