Opening up opportunity and magic to everyone, not just the privileged few

Posted 05/05/2022

Guest Blog Post by Chief Executive of County Durham Community Foundation, Michelle Cooper

For the first time since it began in 2009, Lumiere 2021 linked city and wider county through six bold commissions that transformed significant landmarks across County Durham from the Apollo Pavilion at Peterlee to Raby Castle at Staindrop. This reflects Durham’s bid to be UK City of Culture 2025, which aims to secure the prestigious title for the entire county.

In this guest blog post, Chief Executive of County Durham Community Foundation, Michelle Cooper reflects on Lumiere and what it means for the local community, long after the lights have dimmed. A long-standing supporter of Lumiere, the Foundation launched a match funding scheme to support last year’s festival.

It was the look on her face that did it for me. Pride, a little bit of shock, not quite sure if I was joking. She was just a hair older than my own daughter, standing next to the neon artwork that she had designed and created, which simply read “Own Your Voice.”  I loved the work and asked if I could buy it after the festival for our offices and watched her processing the fact that she’d made something beautiful and valuable. The artwork was created as part of an innovative Lumiere Learning & Participation project, in which a group of year 9 students from Durham Federation worked on ideas and text with writer, Lucie Brownlee and Yorkshire-based Neon Workshops to light up their own words in neon.


Lumiere is a one-of-a-kind experience. You see the first installation and smile; you see the next and think how pretty it looks with the moon and Durham Castle in the background; and then there’s a tipping point when you see more and more and it becomes dazzlingly magical.


The people of County Durham are brought together by Lumiere to create a number of community artworks that grace the streets of the city. Hearing and seeing the individual experiences of those who take part in the festival, from children to older people, is as rich as the installations themselves.

As a charity that digs its heels in against poverty and inequality of opportunity, we are in the business of people and that is why we support the Learning & Participation programme that keeps Lumiere alive throughout its two-year cycles and way beyond the four days that 140,000 visitors enjoyed in 2021. For us it is about opening up opportunity and magic to everyone, not just a privileged few.


School children, young carers, veterans, people with disabilities, and people with lived experience of mental health all participated in this year’s programme, with their work standing alongside the work of international artists. From Plastica Botanica, the intricate, jewel-coloured flowers strung across the Bailey, to City of Light, a Lilliputian lantern village complete with miniature Cathedral and Ferris wheel in the shadow of the actual Cathedral, 2021’s installations created by members of our community were some of my favourites.


Community involvement is an element of the festival that has become increasingly vital. For 2021, the Foundation put forward £100,000 in match funding, helping the Artichoke team bring in a further £200,000 from local businesses of all sizes to support this wider work. 2021 was also notable because, not only did the festival involve local people from across the County, for the first time, artworks were shown across County Durham as well as the City, at Raby Castle, Finchale Priory and Seaham Marina, amongst other destinations.


For me this is the democratisation of the festival, making art and aspiration open for all to enjoy, whether visitors are first timers to the festival, face mobility issues or simply don’t feel comfortable joining the larger crowds in the City centre.

The way the festival has evolved is something that should make us all feel proud of where we live. Lumiere is the crown jewel our bid for City of Culture 2025, because it brings us the best kind of culture. A culture that is for everyone.

County Durham Community Foundation is a grant-making charity that connects local donors to community projects.

Durham is now one of just four locations shortlisted to be UK City of Culture 2025.


Lumiere is produced by Artichoke and commissioned by Durham County Council with support from Arts Council England and Durham University and a raft of funders and supporters.