Wakefield's City of Culture bid will celebrate 'exciting' and 'quirky' developments across the district

With just days to go until Wakefield officially submits its bid to be crowned City of Culture 2025, the deputy director of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park explains why she is backing the bid.

Friday, 16th July 2021, 7:00 am

The council’s bid for recognition is set to celebrate cultural and historical attractions from all corners of the district, with its position as the home of sculpture sure to play a key part.

As the birthplace of famous sculptors Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, the Wakefield district has perhaps a greater claim to the title of Home of Sculpture than any other UK city.

And nowhere is this title better celebrated that at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

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With just days to go until Wakefield officially submits its bid to be crowned City of Culture 2025, the deputy director of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park explains why she is backing the bid. Pictured are Helen Pheby, Head of Curatorial Programme at Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Councillor Michael Graham.

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Set in more than 500 acres of parkland, YSP is a registered charity which hosts world-class year-round exhibitions.

Since opening more than 40 years ago, it has attracted millions of visitors and international attention.

But deputy director Helen Featherstone is sure that the park, as well as the wider district, stands only to benefit from the City of Culture crown.

Council leader Denise Jeffery at Pontefract Castle, which will also play a key role in the City of Culture 2025 bid.

She said: “I think it’s fantastic that the council are behind that and I think it’s a real opportunity for everyone to come together from the corners of Wakefield to tell a shared story.

“Wakefield’s got tremendous cultural assets with the Hepworth, YSP, the Theatre Royal, Tileyard.

“It’s got really exciting up and coming development. And it’s got that really quirky, different side to it with all the different festivals.

“I think Wakefield is overlooked a bit. It’s not a key city and a lot of attention is often spotlighted on Leeds. But I do think it has an awful lot to offer.”

As well has hundreds of acres of open parkland, YSP’s offering includes a woodland walk, formal gardens, six indoor galleries, an award-winning restaurant and the 18th century Bretton Hall country house.

Helen says it is this incredible variety of offerings which has helped the park play a vital role in supporting local people through the pandemic.

Though YSP was forced to close during the first national lockdown, it was able to reopen its grounds and gardens in July 2020, and has remained open ever since.

Helen said: “We were told by government that we came under Museums and Galleries but we worked with them to make a case for sculpture parks.

“When it came to the second major lockdown were able to keep our gardens open. We are a charity so it was great for us to be able to offer some kind of provision for the outdoors.

“People are saying you’ve saved me, it’s been brilliant for my mental health. We’ve really taken note of it.

“We’ve always known we’ve had an impact on mental health and wellbeing but that was something that really came to the forefront in lockdown.

“What was really overwhelming during lockdown was the amount of love we received. “Staff found that really positively overwhelming.

“Whatever you do you always get cynics and people who are sceptical. But for every person like that there’s 1,000 who are positive.”

Though she remains quiet about any plans for City of Culture exhibitions or events at YSP, Helen is confident that the title would only boost Wakefield’s reputation.

She said: “It’s a positive opportunity, isn’t it? We’re at early stages, but it is a really exciting opportunity to have a positive conversation.

“I think that can only be a good thing. Wakefield has got some absolute cultural gems, but there’s always scope for more investment, more development.

“It’s a long way to winning, but I think the process of applying is really positive.”

Since being founded in 1977, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park has drawn millions of people to the Wakefield district, and hosted pieces from some of the world’s most reknowned sculptors and artists.

The team’s decision to back Wakefield’s bid for City of Culture 2025 will no doubt add weight to the council’s expression of interest, and draw the attention of the judges.

Councillor Michael Graham, Wakefield Council’s Cabinet Member for Culture, Leisure and Sport, said: “The highly successful Yorkshire Sculpture Park is a real asset to our district and is loved by local residents and welcomes hundreds of thousands of tourists each year.

“It really is a world-class visitor attraction – providing a stunning and unique location for people to appreciate art and sculpture as well as the beautiful landscape all year round.

“The YSP is just one of the amazing attractions we have that are helping to shape our bid to become City of Culture 2025.”

Other local attractions to have backed the bid include the Hepworth Wakefield, Topsy Turvy Theatre, Production Park and Wakefield Civic Society.

Speaking to the Express earlier this year, the founders of Tileyard North, which will soon move into the former Rutland Mills development, said they believed that the title could help make Wakefield “cooler than Leeds”.

Long road ahead as first deadline draws nearer

To secure the title of City of Culture 2025, Wakefield will need to beat out submissions from a host of other cities.

Bradford, Southampton, Chelmsford and Medway are among those who have confirmed plans to enter the competition.

But there is still along journey ahead for those hoping to compete for the title.

First, competitors will need to prove that they meet all criteria, including proving an existing identity to the area, needed the opportunity for social and economic investment and the existence of cultural excellence.

Initial Expressions of Interest must be submitted by Monday, July 19, before a longlist of six finalists is confirmed in September.

Those who have progressed to the longlist will be given a grant of £40,000 to help them develop a full application, which will be due in April 2022.

Following this, three shortlisted cities will be selected, and each visited by an expert advisory panel to present their plans.

From here, the panel will submit its recommendation for the winner of the UK City of Culture 2025, with an announcement expected in May 2022.