IT’S a long and winding career path that leads you from helping return art treasures looted by the Nazis to taking charge of the way York sells itself on the national and international stage.

During the course of that unusual career journey, new Make It York boss Sean Bullick also managed to squeeze in 12 years running the Business Improvement District (BID) in Newcastle. He rebranded it as ‘NE1’, persuaded city centre retailers to stay open ‘til 8pm every weekday evening - and by doing so created a Newcastle ‘evening economy’ estimated to be worth tens of millions a year. York retailers take note.

But first, that art looted by the Nazis.

At the time Sean, a commercial lawyer by training, was working as the secretary of the National Museum Directors Conference - an umbrella organisation representing the interests of the UK’s national museums. It was a job that started out as being mainly legal in nature, the 52-year-old married dad of two says. But during five years with the organisation (from 2001 to 2006) it evolved into a PR and lobbying role.

As part of that, he found himself working with an organisation called, in a wonderfully Graham Greene-ish way, the Spoliation Advisory Panel. And that was when he got involved with art stolen by the Nazis.

The Spoliation Advisory Panel is a government body whose remit is to ‘resolve claims from people, or their heirs, who lost property during the Nazi era, which is now held in UK national collections’. A consultation document prepared by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in 2006 highlighted the extent of the problem. Between 1933 and 1945, it said, “the Nazis’ attack on European Jewry consisted not only of a systematic drive to murder European Jews but also measures taken to deprive Jews of their culture. As a result cultural objects ... have been dispersed throughout Europe and beyond.

“The scale of destruction and looting of historic monuments and private and national collections was recognised ... to be exceptional.”

Much of the looted material eventually ended up in museums and national collections around the world - including here in Britain.

The National Museum Directors Conference, of which Sean became secretary, took the lead in setting up a working group to look into the situation - and the Spoliation Advisory Panel was subsequently appointed. It looked into five claims about artworks held in British museums, including some Albrecht Durer drawings held at the British Museum and a piece by the 15th century German engraver Mair von Landshut held at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Eventually, the panel recommended that in four of the five cases, the artworks should be returned to the rightful heirs. But of course things weren’t as simple as that. By law, national museums are not allowed to ‘deaccession’ items in their collections, Sean says. So an Act of Parliament was needed before they could be returned. A good thing he had that legal training...

The man who now heads Make It York was born in Edinburgh and brought up in the Scottish Borders. He went to school in Hampshire and then headed back north to go to university in Newcastle. He initially studied history and politics, then did a ‘conversion course’ at the then Newcastle Polytechnic to get his law degree.

His first job as a commercial lawyer was with Newbury-based Quantel, an organisation which specialised in special effects for TV and film. He then moved to the far more staid Quaker Oats, looking after legal issues for them in Europe and the UK. “And then I decided I wasn’t really interested in commercial law,” he says.

That was when he moved to the National Museum Directors Conference, and got involved in returning Nazi loot...

After leaving the Conference in 2006 he took a brief sabbatical in France, before he and his wife decided they wanted to return to the UK. They ended up in Newcastle, where he took on the job of Chief Executive of the city’s Business Improvement District.

He rebranded it as the much more contemporary and catchy NE1 (yes, that’s the postcode for Newcastle city centre); attracted £30 million in heritage lottery and commercial sponsorship funding; set up a youth development scheme; and did some hard-core networking to develop contacts with people in regional and national government.

But perhaps his biggest achievement in Newcastle, he says, was in persuading the city’s retailers to keep their shops open every weekday evening until 8pm.

“In Newcastle there was a culture of shops closing after 5pm,” he says. “I was told ‘Geordies like to go home after work, not stay in the city centre.’”

He was having none of it. “We had this situation where everybody was at home between 5-9pm,” he says. “We thought ‘how do we go about changing the feel of the city?’”

York Press: THRIVING: Newcastle city centre, where shops now stay open until 8pm

The answer? NE1 launched an ‘Alive After Five’ initiative to persuade retailers to stay open longer. And it succeeded. “We persuaded the city council to provide free parking after 5pm, and we persuaded the shops to stay open until 8pm Monday to Friday,” he says. Since it was launched in 2010, he reckons Alive after Five has generated something like £1 billion for the Newcastle economy.

Oh, for a bit of that in York...

The two cities are very different, he points out. Newcastle city centre has the giant Eldon Square shopping centre - and once that was on board with Alive after Five, it swing the whole thing. There’s nothing remotely comparable in York.

But how great if it could be made to work here. The new Make It York MD isn’t making any promises. But perhaps the city council can perhaps expect an approach about free evening parking...


Sean Bullick arrived as Managing Director of Make it York about three months ago. And he comes to the job filled with optimism about York’s future.

The city, he says, is on the ‘cusp of a step-change’. York Central and the planned Castle Gateway regeneration offer real opportunities. And there’s more. There is, in York, a real pool of creative, digital, economic and scientific talent, he says - you can see that through things like Science City, York Open Studios and York’s designation as a UNESCO city of digital media arts.

But we could do so much more to harness that talent, he says - and to project York in a different, more contemporary way on the national and international stage.

“York will always have its history,” he says. “But there’s no reason why that should be seen as being in conflict with developing a new economy. The real value is to have both!”

He’s all for a ‘rebranding’ of York, therefore, so that it can appeal to a wider, more contemporary range of visitors and investors - while maintaining its appeal to those who already see York as a great place to live and visit.

The word is that City of York Council is to appoint Martin Boisen, the Danish geographer and expert in urban places who has helped with the rebranding of major European cities such as Amsterdam, Oslo and Utrecht. The idea would be for Boisen to work with award-winning Hemingway Design on a rebrand for York.

Mr Bullick is fully behind the proposals. A proper rebrand would, he says, ‘ensure that we can provide investors, professionals, academics and visitors, who will be central to the city’s future success, with consistent messages about York and what it has to offer’.

So what will Make It York’s part be in this new era for York - and is the organisation in a position to do its job effectively?

When it was first set up four years ago, there were a few wobbles. It seriously under-estimated the strength of local reaction to its proposals to remove the Parliament Street fountain and the Christmas carousel, for example, and for a while seemed out of touch.

But the refurbished Shambles Market with its popular food court is now really beginning to find its feet. And Make It York has scored other successes, such as allowing the Great Yorkshire Fringe to take over Parliament Street, and introducing a new Easter Festival and an extended St Nicholas Christmas Festival.

York Press:

POPULAR: The food court at Shambles Market

The organisation is essentially a quango with a single shareholder (the city council) but its own board of directors and income which comes from a variety of sources, including sponsorship, income from activities, plus a comparatively small contribution (about seven per cent of its budget) from the council. In terms of accountability, it is scrutinised by two important council committees, Mr Bullick says.

He sees the organisation’s role as:

- Helping York to sell and promote itself as a tourist destination and as a place to do business

- Networking, so as to build up York’s connections in the wider world, with government ministries, funding bodies, foreign embassies and potential investors

- Helping to develop a ‘cultural strategy’ for York.

But he’s not interested in Make It York simply duplicating work that is already being done, he says. “What we should should be complementing what’s going on at government level,” he says.

He will be attending his first Make It York ‘stakeholder’ meeting at York’s Principal Hotel next Wednesday. It might be interesting to see what comes out of that. Odds on Make It York becoming YO1, anyone?