A young artist stands next to her Lumiere neon artwork

Looking back at Lumiere 21.

Michelle Cooper reflects on Lumiere 2021 and what it means for the local community, long after the lights have dimmed. The chief executive of County Durham Community Foundation supports the festival through match funding and by sitting on the development board.

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 she had designed and created that read, simply, “Own Your Voice.”

I loved it and asked if I could buy it after the festival for our offices and could see her processing the fact she’d made something beautiful and valuable.

The festival, produced by Artichoke, is an accumulative experience. You see the first installation and smile, you see the next and think how pretty it looks with the moon and the castle in the background. And then there’s that tipping point when you see more and more and it just becomes a fabulous, dazzling unfolding.

And it’s the same with the people of County Durham who are brought together by the festival to create a choice number of community artworks that grace the streets of the city: from children to the elderly, hearing and seeing the individuals experiences of those who take part in the festival 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, not light festivals, and that is why we support the Learning and 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, prisoners, people with mobility issues or mental health issues all participate in the programme, with their work standing alongside the international artists that grace the festival. From blousy, jewel-coloured flowers strung across the Bailey, to a Lilliputian lantern village complete with miniature Cathedral and Ferris Wheel in the shadow of the actual Cathedral, 2021’s installations 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 £150,000 from local businesses of all sizes to support this wider work. 2021 was also notable as not only did it involve local people across the county, but more installations than ever were shown across the county, at Raby Castle, Finchale Priory and Seaham amongst other destinations.

For me this is the democratisation of the festival, getting art and aspiration out into the geography for all to enjoy, whether they are first timers to the festival, face mobility issues or simply feel afraid to join the larger crowds in the city centre due to clinical vulnerabilities.

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