As 2016 drew to a close, rumours began to circulate around Leicester that the historic Queen’s Hall might be closing its doors. It has now been confirmed that a venue which hosted Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Cure and countless others over the years might has a very uncertain future. The University of Leicester states on its website that “Queen’s Hall will not be retained in its current form”, and that it will be repurposed into a “spacious food court” and “high quality multi-use spaces”. The University hosted a public consultation on July 17th, giving new urgency to a petition started last year by local resident Alex Scoppie and prompting heated debate in the local community and press.
Event venues all have unique personalities; Queen’s Hall is a prime example of how a space can become a cultural landmark over the years. With its high ceilings and wood panelling it is an inspiring room even when empty, and nothing short of magical when filled with a crowd and a live band on stage. It is a venue that has hosted household name touring acts as part of its inclusion in the cluster of event spaces that make up the O2 Academy, been an integral part of Handmade Festival after its move from the city centre, and provided a stellar space for the University of Leicester Theatre Society.
So much could be said about Queen’s Hall as an important and vital venue, not just because of its history and aesthetics, but also its present function as a space for both established and up and coming acts. It is a puzzle piece in the eclectic range of venues the city has to offer, providing a stepping stone in size and prominence from venues such as The Cookie and Firebug, and there is no shortage of Leicester acts that vouch for its importance in their careers. Local artist Charlotte Carpenter describes how her musical journey began by playing open mics and coffee shops and eventually brought her to the stage at Queens Hall for Handmade Festival 2017. For her it has been a point of inspiration for some time, and finally performing on that stage put her in a position “where my music could be heard in the sort of setting in which it could excel”.
Local band Ash Mammal also cite the importance of the venue in their careers. At the time of their album launch “it was one of the biggest venues we had ever played, and was one of the first times we truly felt like we were being received the way we wanted to be, and had a chance at success as musicians”. From their perspective, although the Leicester music scene is “currently at a peak and more diverse than we have even seen it be, (it) is still not perfect. There is a lack of venues in the city that bands can play, and removing such a prominent performance space, we feel will be a huge detriment for the scene in Leicester”. There is definite feeling that the Queen’s Hall would be a loss for artists and audiences alike, as well as very tangible dismantling of years of memories and experiences.
However, perhaps the most important fact to note at this point is that Queen’s Hall is in a uniquely precarious position, one which is having a very real impact on the way that future plans for the hall pan out. It is not only nestled in the heart of a university campus, but is also under the umbrella of the Academy Music Group as the o2 Academy Leicester. As a direct result of these two facts, its intrinsic value to the cultural makeup of the city is at risk of being eclipsed by commercial ideals, as well as plans to propel the bricks and mortar of the building into the future. It is understandable that the university feels pressure to provide its students with facilities on campus that reflect the rising cost of higher education, as well as to fulfil its relationship with the Academy Music Group, as the Percy Gee building is both a student union and a public venue. It may make financial sense for the building to house food outlets, and for the university to provide a “more useful multi-purpose space” as parts of its stated plans for renovations. However, what will it say about the University of Leicester if it moves into the future while erasing a venue with such a rich historic past?
This brings up the very pertinent question of corporate social responsibility. To what extent is the university obligated to uphold the unique cultural quirks of their campus? Does it have a responsibility not only to provide academic inspiration and teaching excellence, but also to have an awareness of the city and culture around it, and its place in it? Although some students only live in the city for the duration of their studies, and don’t make Leicester a permanent home, perhaps access to a venue such as Queen’s Hall and an awareness that it feeds into the arts and culture of the city could be valuable to them and encourage them to participate in the city in ways far more varied than simply academic pursuits. Perhaps it is even enriching, for not only the students but the city too.
A local resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, feels that the university is not concerned with the question of social responsibility, and that it has “rearranged the union structure completely and massively cut back student services in favour of commercial outlets to make profit off students”, culminating in a “joint venture that’s prioritising commercial interests over services for students”. There is a sense that these issues are perhaps not exclusive to Leicester and the future of Queen’s Hall. They are part of bigger questions about social responsibility and the tangible value of culture. The university could create a venue of equal size, but could they create one of equal cultural value?
With the public consultation due to end on July 28th, there is a shortage of time to consider these big picture issues in relation to Queen’s Hall. Although the future of this venue may hold very personal resonance for some, it is perhaps worth thinking of other similar venues and cultural landmarks. What should their future be? Is it possible to move with the times, satisfying the inevitable commercial needs of venue management, and creating high tech multi-purpose venues? Or should these unique spaces be protected and continue to be presented as very real time machines inside which there is a palpable sense of a vibrant past and inspiring future?
Feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org before the 28th July.
Photography by Sam Wood