But now, an opportunity seized upon in the wake of Brexit is giving Yorkshire’s biggest metropolis the chance to shout about what it insists is one of the UK’s hidden cultural gems.
And a predicted £114million revenue windfall from extra tourism will help supercharge the leveling-up agenda for the wider West Yorkshire region too.
The city had invested heavily in preparing a bid to become the European Capital of Culture in 2023 when the vote to leave the European Union seemingly left all the hard work – and cash spent – in tatters. EU chiefs ruled UK cities were no longer eligible.
Securing the prize had helped turbocharge Glasgow in 1990 and Liverpool in 2008 and from the initial dismay came a sense of determination to unleash a year-long celebration of Leeds’s cultural landscape.
The project’s creative director Kully Thiarai calls it simply “an act of defiance”.
Tonight that boldness will come to life before a 15,000 crowd at Headingley Stadium for a grand opening ceremony titled The Awakening.
It will feature performances by an array of artists including Poet Laureate Simon Armitage, pop star Corinne Bailey Rae, the Opera North orchestra, paralympian Kadeena Cox and Solar Jets, who will pay homage to local stars The Kaiser Chiefs.
Leeds-born TV presenter and Leeds 2023 chair Gabby Logan, predicts the night will be a riot.
Talking exclusively to the Daily Express Gabby, 49, said: “I am so excited. We are really going to let culture loose in the city. Come tonight everything is going to suddenly feel very real.
“I’m not quite sure the people of Leeds are ready for the year we have planned and the amazing events set to take place. That’s why The Awakening is such a good title. We are bringing everything to life.”
Gabby, daughter of former Leeds United and Wales football star Terry Yorath, spent the majority of her childhood in the city. Her parents still live there.
She adds: “Friends who visit Leeds for the first time tell me they are surprised by what a modern, vibrant city it is and without fail they are amazed by its incredible architecture. They all fall in love with it.
“Culturally it has been in the shadow of Manchester because that has always been seen as the bigger centre. Liverpool, of course, has The Beatles. Leeds has never quite had that one big thing – yet!”
The team coordinating the year has received close to £20million of backing, half of which was provided by Leeds City Council from funds previously allocated for the European Capital of Culture bid.
Local neighborhood hosts have been recruited across 33 wards while the project will feature 12 major events including art installations, film screenings and performances.
For its duration the city square will be transformed by a forest-like installation, whilst Armitage will run an X Factor-style competition to inspire young poets. Musicians are champing at the bit to raise the city’s profile.
Gabby believes that alongside increased global recognition for her hometown will be a lasting legacy – and not just in traditional arts.
While the city already boasts Yorkshire Dance, Northern Ballet, Leeds Playhouse, Opera North, Leeds City Varieties, a hugely renowned art gallery, one of the nation’s top conservatoires and a thriving grassroots music scene alongside huge festivals and one of the busiest concert arenas in the world, she sees the potential for far more.
She added: “This year we are going to celebrate the very best it has to offer, all these wonderful things that make us human, things that Leeds is brimful of talent with but has kept quiet about for too long.
“It could be technology such as creating games, it could be new media, it could be food, sport, or it could be music, art or dance. I just can’t wait to see it all unfold.”
● Thousands of artworks submitted by the public in exchange for free tickets to tonight’s opening event have created a unique collection for the city. Over coming months the pieces will be displayed in a pop-up citizen art exhibition, Waking the Artist, that celebrates the city’s artistic talents.