Two years on, what’s happening with York UNESCO City of Media Arts?

A digital city
1 Dec 2016 @ 8.11 pm
| News

With a big fanfare, York was declared a UNESCO City of Media Arts on December 1, 2014.

When the United Nations cultural organisation awarded the city this designation, leaders declared it to be a game changer.

“This prestigious recognition of York’s creative and media sectors will boost these existing strong industries in York, raise the profile of the city globally, attract new businesses and provide employment opportunities for York residents for years to come,” said then council leader James Alexander.

So what has happened since then?

It turns out that a huge amount has changed – and in many ways the project now looks quite different. There have been successes and challenges along the way too.

We thought it would be a good idea to check in and see where York is on its media arts journey…

The changing personnel

Moved on: James Alexander
Moved on: James Alexander

Although it was only in 2014, York’s bid for UNESCO status was a product of a very different political era.

James Alexander was then leader of the ruling Labour Group. He has long gone, as has Labour’s control of the council.

Another champion of the UNESCO cause was council chief executive Kersten England, who left to take up the same role in Bradford in August 2015.

The designation also came five months before the creation of Make It York – although the new destination management organisation was always lined up to play a key role.

Following the council changes – and the adoption of new political priorities – it has been largely left to Make It York to take up the running on this project.

That is reflected in the fact that there are only three references to the York UNESCO City of Media Arts on the City of York Council website.

The plan

After York became a City of Media Arts, a glossy brochure was produced (PDF) which set out the plan for 2015/16.

It began by defining media arts as

the integration of new media technologies into creative practice and social exchange.

This includes disciplines such as video games, computer animation, digital and interactive art, sound art, film, television and theatre.

Here are some of the pledges set out in that plan, and where things stand today.

An ‘iconic digital & media arts centre’ will be built

Former Labour council leader Dafydd Williams with a model of the Guildhall. Photograph: City of York Council
Former Labour council leader Dafydd Williams with a model of the Guildhall. Photograph: City of York Council

The plan was to turn York’s ancient Guildhall, largely empty since the council decamped to its West Offices HQ, into the digital and media arts centre.

York’s Guildhall and Riverside will provide a world class venue supporting and nurturing the expansion of York’s vibrant creative businesses; combining events and exhibition space with state-of-the- art collaboration and co-working facilities, securing a sustainable future for this historic building.

York UNESCO City Of Media Arts Plan 2015/16


The bill, however, was eye-watering: £9 million. And a bid for £4 million of lottery cash was turned down.

One of the first moves of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition after coming to power in May 2015 was to ditch the scheme, describing it as a “vanity project”.

New plans to turn the Guildhall into a general business and civic venue, plus restaurant, were given the green light last month with £2.3 million of funding from the West Yorkshire Combined Authority.

An awards ceremony

A year on from the UNESCO designation, it was announced that there would be a new set of awards to “honour the world’s top digital artists”.

These look set to be tied in to the Mediale festival next year – see below. However the city is rewarding the creative sector at a ceremony tonight (Thursday, December 1) as the first York Culture Awards are handed to some talented people and organisations.

The office and team

The team responsible for the York UNESCO City of Media Arts plans: L-R Stuart Goulden, Marcus Romer, Jane Lady Gibson (chair of Make It York), Chris Bailey (Master of the Guild of Media Arts) and Steve Brown (managing director of Make It York)
The team responsible for the York UNESCO City of Media Arts plans: L-R Stuart Goulden, Marcus Romer, Jane Lady Gibson (chair of Make It York), Chris Bailey (Master of the Guild of Media Arts) and Steve Brown (managing director of Make It York)

The original plan recommended that a dedicated designation office be set up by Make It York.

This would be staffed by “a management team of two positions (one senior, one junior) tasked with
the management, promotion and development of ‘York UNESCO City of Media Arts’”.

Again, this has changed in the last two years. No managers were appointed. Instead Make It York contracted out work on the UNESCO project to two consultants.

The initial work was for seven months and this was contracted to Stuart Goulden and Marcus Romer.

Stuart Goulden was then retained for a further 10 months up until September 2016 to further develop the UNESCO work. Altogether they were paid £87,846 (Marcus’s Pilot Theatre Company £27K for May-Dec 2015, and Stuart’s Like No Other company £60.8K for May 2015-Sept 2016).

Both contracts have now ended. And instead of having a permanent office dedicated to the York UNESCO City of Media Arts, the work is now overseen by existing Make It York staff.

Board and business plan

The 2015/15 plan envisaged a board to oversee the work of the office. It stated: “A board will form and review the strategic direction of the Office.

Four aspirations
These are the four aspirations as set out in the York Unesco City Of Media Arts Plan 2015/16.

1. To double the size York’s creative economy from £164.8m to £329.6m by 2025

2. To increase engagement in the arts from 50.3% to 75% by 2025

3. To double the proportion of schools in the area with Arts Council Artsmark accreditation from 17% to 34% by 2025

4. To increase the proportion of cultural tourists from 17% to 25%, contributing to a doubling of the value of tourism to York to £1bn by 2025

“Meeting four times a year, its 6-8 members will include broad representation of creative practitioners and organisations, public, community, education and private sectors, tourism bodies, property development and media.

“It will also blend experience with youth following an inclusive recruitment campaign.”

It went on to state that “a full business plan, including targets, will be developed by Make It York within three months of designation”.

There is no specific media arts board or business plan.

However the original aspirations set out in the plan, seen on the panel on the right, remain aspirations, says Steve Brown, managing director of Make It York.

And instead of a new board being set up, he reports regularly on UNESCO progress to the Make It York board, which includes two York councillors.

“What Make It York is doing is delivering on the task we were given under the SLA [service level agreement] from the council.

“In very simple terms that was to take the UNESCO designation and turn it into something, and that’s what we are in the process of trying to do.”

Indicators and targets

The original plan said that the media arts project office

will identify key performance indicators and targets for the main objectives for designation.

It is recommended that the socio-economic impact is tracked by existing city measures for competitiveness, employment, and investment and community participation in the arts.


As outlined above, that office was never set up. As a result no KPIs or targets have been identified.

They will come, though, says Steve, as plans are formalised.

Guild of Media Arts

Members of the guild at a meeting in the Hiscox building to mark a year since UNESCO designation. Photograph: Jim Poyner
Members of the guild at a meeting in the Hiscox building to mark a year since UNESCO designation. Photograph: Jim Poyner

The original plan foresaw the creation of “a new 21st century digital art guild, continuing the long tradition of craft guilds in the city”.

That has been a big success. Launched in October 2015, the Guild Of Media Arts, York’s first new trade guild for 700 years long, already has more than 200 paying members. Its third meeting takes place next Monday (December 5).

It has been tasked with shaping much of what York UNESCO City of Media Arts – quite an intangible concept – will become. The guild’s first report is due out later this month.

“As the guild develops it will increasingly be responsible for generating initiatives, activities, networking and business that turns the UNESCO designation into something,” Steve told YorkMix.

Media arts festival

Tom Higham
Tom Higham
The idea for a “mediale” – a 20-day international media arts festival in autumn 2018 involving 100,000 people – was revealed on the first anniversary of the designation.

This August the creative director of the festival was appointed.

Tom Higham’s role involves a few days’ initial work to put in the funding bids for the festival. This will be followed by a two-year contract to deliver the festival and surrounding activity – should those funding bids be successful.

Steve said the plan was to raise £1.5 million for the mediale. A bid for funding of £450,000 had gone into the Arts Council.

We will know in February if this has been successful, and if so the money would be matched by another £450K pledged by businesses and organisations connected with York.

Schools involvement

The planning document talked of embedding “creative education at the heart of the learning experience”.

That work is well underway, via Colin Jackson of Creative Learning Partnerships.

“We want UNESCO and the media arts to mean something for the next generation of people of York,” said Steve.

Two years in

Steve believes some very real progress is now being made. Make It York, which only gets 15% of its revenue from City of York Council, is continuing to invest in the project and oversee progress.

“We are currently creating structures that allow the UNESCO City of Media Arts to be self-sustaining and ongoing,” he told YorkMix.

“I do think we are going to end up with a £1.5 million international arts festival. We have created a brand-new guild that has already got 200 members and climbing, and we’re doing some good work in education.”

He added:

This remains a real opportunity for the city. It’s ours to do something with.