INTERVIEW WITH LAUREN SMETHURST AND ALEX WILLIAMS, YAF
Throughout 2023, our National Development team has curated a season of events and promotional activity to spotlight key conversations affecting arts and cultural institutions across the country. This included looking at “Levelling Up” in more detail and shining a light on some of the most ambitious and innovative cultural openings in the UK.
To round off the year and the series, our National Development team sat down with Megan (Fundraising Officer) and Belle (Fundraising Assistant) who currently work in the Fundraising team at LEEDS 2023. LEEDS 2023 is an independent, not-for-profit Year of Culture that is led by the Leeds Culture Trust (LCT) and Leeds City Council. Throughout 2023, LEEDS 2023 has put on a series of major and unique cultural projects for the city, encompassed by rich creative learning programmes.
As LEEDS 2023 is coming to a close, we spoke with Megan and Belle about their time at the organisation, what working in the Development team has looked like and the nature of fixed-term contracts in the arts.
What attracted you to working for LEEDS 2023?
Megan: It was a chance to try something new, with LEEDS 2023 being a one-off project it was quite unique. You’re really only going to get to do something like this once. I like talking to people and building relationships, whether that’s in a charity or with charities, corporates, or communities, and this is key to my role as Fundraising Officer. It was a great opportunity for me to use the skills I already had, but in a completely different context. I was also particularly excited to work on cultivation events, as I have a background in events management. I know this is something LEEDS 2023 were looking for with appointing this role.
Belle: Well, I’ve worked property. I’ve worked in hospitality. I’ve worked in retail. I’ve done quite a lot of different jobs. But, I did do a Fine Art degree at university and I’d always wanted to get closer to working in the arts sector because it’s really important to me. I still pursue a lot of that passion, I have my own creative practice and attend a lot of cultural events and exhibitions. I’ve lived in Leeds for about 14 years now, so when the Fundraising Assistant job came up it was perfect. I know Leeds through and through, but I also wanted to have the opportunity to learn about the communities in Leeds that I don’t know a lot about. I’m very passionate about facilitating access to culture for people who are unable to access it, so that was a driving force for me.
What has it been like to work in the fundraising and development team for LEEDS 2023? Is it what you expected and do you have any memorable highlights you’d like to share?
Megan: It’s difficult to describe, because it’s a one-time project, it’s hard to compare to other things. I’d say a challenge we’re having at the moment is that we’re trying to wrap up as the year is coming to an end, but we are also wanting to continue the legacy, so you’re always coming at things from two different angles. The legacy of LEEDS 2023 is hugely important to our team because we want those who have supported LEEDS 2023 to continue supporting Leeds and culture in the future. So I suppose that’s something I didn’t really think about when coming into the role, exactly how much you’d think about it ending whilst still delivering.
There’s also a huge variety of projects and installations, something that you wouldn’t get with most jobs. This comes with its advantages, but it’s difficult to have awareness of what is going on across the different departments. So I’d say that’s been one of the challenges I’ve found, coming into the project a bit later and trying to get my head around everything that is happening. But so many exciting things going on is a huge positive too!
Belle: Yes, exactly what Megan was saying in that it took me a really long time to understand the programme at LEEDS 2023. Sometimes projects have so many threads within them, so it isn’t just one event that is happening. We’ve got a project called The Gift for example, which focuses on garments being made for each ward of Leeds, which is part of a wider project called My Leeds, which included events that were organised by volunteers from each ward. I could not get my head around that for a really long time!
I had also never done fundraising before, and understood the resiliency that it requires, especially in this economic climate. On the flip side, you do get the reward of really seeing the impact of projects in fundraising and that is really meaningful. It’s a nourishing experience and extremely varied. You have to be very flexible and open to just trying lots of different things.
How has your team found building relationships with supporters?
Belle: There’s currently four of us in our team, but there once was seven and in a few weeks’ time we will be three. We’ve had a lot of change throughout the year and we adapt the best we can. In terms of building relationships with funders, we were fortunate to have the context of the European Capital of Culture 2023 behind us* and existing relationships. We have fantastic partnerships with businesses like Burberry, who are based in the city, KPMG and Channel 4 who are now based in Leeds as well. So that’s been really positive. The statutory funding we have received has been amazing too. Many organisations have also supported in-kind. We’re working with other ‘Years of Culture’ as well, so I think those relationships will continue after LEEDS 2023 finishes.
*“The city’s official bid to be European capital of culture began about a decade ago but was dashed in 2017 when the European Commission told Leeds it could no longer be considered due to Brexit” (Robyn Vinter, The Guardian, 2023).
What do you think the significance of the Year of Culture being in Leeds, Yorkshire and the North has been?
Belle: This is a really interesting question. A lot of people tend to see Yorkshire as Yorkshire, but Yorkshire is actually four counties, each with its own story to tell. So I think there is a significance in that Leeds has been given an opportunity and platform to tell its rich history, including its role in industrial activity and our diverse communities. I think it’s important that it has been outside of London and in the North. It’s an opportunity for us to share the culture that is happening in our areas.
We are already very well connected with the rest of the world too, we have a lot of international projects, including those with Denmark and Finland. We work with international artists and forge relationships with the countries where those artists are from. There has been so much coverage that goes far and wide beyond Leeds, including national media and different radio stations.
Your roles are both fixed-term contracts. Are you able to share your thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of this type of contract in the arts sector? Has this informed your time at LEEDS 2023 at all?
Megan: I think there really are pros and cons. I’ve had quite a lot of contract roles in the past, but things like applying for mortgages make it quite complicated. It’s very personal, I think. I was in a position to be able to try something new, I wouldn’t otherwise be able to take on such a short term contract at any other time. You don’t necessarily feel “trapped” as such, so fixed-term contracts can be a really good opportunity to try something new, whether it be a different industry or role.
Belle: A big advantage is that you definitely have more flexibility, so you can experiment, which has been the case with this role (Fundraising Assistant) and gaining experience in different areas of fundraising. I do think, like Megan has said, it is down to the person. Some people may need a role that is very consistent with no end date to have that sense of stability. I actually left a permanent role which was very secure, and when I left, we went straight into an economic crisis. This was a very scary time for me, but I didn’t regret the choice that I made, it was just the circumstances that changed around me.
With fixed-term roles, there’s also that need to keep a close eye on updating your CV and getting involved with recruitment. You don’t spend years without going to an interview, which then becomes incredibly daunting, because you’re keeping it fresh all the time. I’m so glad I took the leap because I’m staying in fundraising after my contract has finished with LEEDS 2023.
Posted Nov 28 2023