Map Charity – together we have #Hope!

On Saturday, the lovely team from MAP Charity put on a Community Day at Leeds Corn Exchange to celebrate everything that they do. If you don’t already know MAP (Music and Arts Production), they’re an amazing arts organisation based in the Grade I listed Hope Foundry on Mabgate, where they offer creative qualifications, and maths and english tuition, to young people who struggle to access mainstream education. Recently, MAP’s work has come under immediate threat as residential development continues to push rapidly along Mabgate from the city centre – sadly we’ve already lost Lady Beck Studios and other creative organisations as rents rocket and buildings are sold to commercial developers.

MAP need to raise £2.4m by October 2019 to secure their long-term future at Hope Foundry – the money will go towards purchase, renovation and conservation of the building so that they can continue and enhance their work in a fit-for-purpose venue. Saturday’s event was about fund-raising and continuing to raise awareness of their ambitious plans, as well as showcasing inspirational young alumni such as AJ, Taylor and Yefe. I’ve been an Ambassador for MAP since earlier this year, and was delighted to be asked to speak at the Corn Exchange alongside fellow supporters Nice Greenan and Emma Hardaker. Here’s what I had to say, and congratulations to Tom, Raf, Gaia and all the team for putting on a great event:

“It’s hopefully a given that any large city like Leeds, with the cultural ambitions that we hold, needs major arts institutions and venues. And we have them – Opera North, Leeds Playhouse, Northern Ballet, the Grand Theatre and the Arena to name a few. Here we are today in the stunning setting of the Corn Exchange, itself a major feature of the cityscape over the years, and happily enjoying a contemporary renaissance as a venue for arts and creativity. But alongside these landmarks, it’s absolutely critical for a thriving cultural scene that we have a broad range of venues, large and small, established on varying business models, that support the broadest possible range of forms of creativity, and which engage and give a platform to different voices through the participants and audiences that they gather.

I think what’s remarkable about the cultural offer of Leeds, as someone who’s been in the city for nearly 30 years, is that we have a particular strength and specialism in the creation of smaller-scale venues and organizations that we might think of as independent or alternative, and that have specifically been created by practitioners themselves. Artists and other creative people have given this city some real treasures – among them are Patrick Studios, Leeds Print Workshop on Vicar Lane, and the Art Hostel on Kirkgate, all created by East Street Arts. A couple of weeks ago they announced the news that they are soon to open a new and permanent Art Hostel within their developing artist-run citadel in Burmantofts, which is fantastic news. In the city centre we also have Belgrave Music Hall, Headrow House, the Brunswick, Serf and Wharf Chambers, and the brilliant Duke Studios on Sheaf Street, a nationally and internationally renowned pioneering co-working and events space. Alongside others beyond the city centre and some which have come and gone over the years, such as &Model and Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun, these independent spaces collectively represent an enviable cultural strength and USP for Leeds.

Another one is The Tetley, a centre for contemporary art and learning that I co-founded with Pippa Hale in 2013. A few days ago The Tetley celebrated its fifth birthday. In five short years, it has become a major cultural venue for the city centre and the fast-developing South Bank. Alongside formal art exhibitions, the Tetley provides an important social space for meeting and conversation, eating and drinking, learning for everyone from toddlers through to students in Higher Education and adults, a wide range of private and corporate events and celebrations such as weddings, and art events including the annual international contemporary artists’ book fair. It’s making a major contribution to the new public realm that is set to develop around it over the coming years, and will one day (in line with our original vision) provide a landmark cultural anchor within a major city park. To date it has supported the work of over 550 artists, and welcomes over 125,000 visitors annually, now exceeding 600,000 visitors since 2013. It has nurtured the careers not just of artists, but also of curators, writers, technicians, administrators and managers, chefs, bar staff, receptionists, researchers, commercial businesses and many others who have gone on to work in the creative and commercial economies elsewhere.

But when Pippa and I founded the artist-led initiative Project Space Leeds (which still runs The Tetley today), jointly with Diane Howse, in 2006, there’s no way we could have imagined then the potential that The Tetley would hold, the role it would come to play in the city, or the social, cultural, and economic value it would create. Or even that it would exist at all – we began by running a project space at Whitehall Waterfront for five years from 2007-12, a pilot phase for what came next. All we held as an organisation in the early days was potential – we invested in the creation of new work and largely supported young and emerging artists who were at an early stage in their careers. I’m grateful to the city and all those who supported us back then, enabling us to grow, stabilize, and ultimately make the move to the Tetley.

When I think about the current position for MAP, the opportunities and challenges facing the organisation, it seems to me that there’s a lot of synergy with this journey. I’ve only been aware of MAP’s work for the last couple of years, but as I’ve got to know Tom and the team better, I’ve been incredibly impressed by the work that they do and everything they’ve achieved over the last 10 years, including the fact that to date they’ve done it all pretty much off their own backs, without significant public funding. For all that time, they’ve been working away a little under the radar of some of us inside Hope Foundry, creating a unique environment through art and music for young people who have difficult accessing mainstream education as well as hosting other organizations who benefit from being part of a cultural hub that enables the collaboration and networking critical to developing creative enterprises.

But MAP is now at a tipping point. Amid the immediate threat of losing their home due to the rapid commercial development of Mabgate, their response has been both bold and inspiring. Today is part of MAP’s fundraising drive to enable it to buy Hope Foundry to not only secure its future on Mabgate forever, but to enable it to do more of the amazing work with young people that it already does, as well as adding apprenticeships and professional development to its offer. In the process it will become a more public-facing venue with a shop, café and expanded gallery and events spaces so that more of us can have access to its beautiful Grade-I listed building in the future. I for one look forward to being able to visit post-renovation to enjoy an exhibition, screening or music performance, or to take part in a workshop, or just to have a coffee with a friend or a business meeting in an inspirational and historic setting.


MAP have a beautiful vision for the future of Hope Foundry, but when we invest in self-organised activity, we don’t always know what the outcomes will be. Sometimes it’s about taking an informed punt on highly ambitious, passionate individuals and teams of people who have a vision and the evident drive to deliver. In an environment where creative subjects are under increasing pressure in the school curriculum, it’s essential that organizations like MAP continue to create opportunities for creative learning and expression. Creativity is essential to the future vitality of cities including Leeds, as it will be central to solving urgent global challenges. I hope I’ve argued compellingly here that alongside civic cultural flagships, we need smaller-scale venues that nurture participation in creative subjects. In fact, there is plenty of research today which argues that these smaller-scale venues, especially those which host creative workspaces of the type which MAP provides, and which grow up from the grass roots and are therefore genuinely embedded in the locales that they serve, may generate even more cultural value than their larger counterparts. They enable trial and error and artistic experimentation in a vital lower-stakes way; they have the capacity to invest in individuals over the longer term; and they provide facilities and interaction on a more human scale. They are small enough to care, but big enough to cope, offering spaces of togetherness that create a different but no less essential kind of sustenance in the city. And anyway, without these venues that nurture creativity in its earliest stages of expression, where will the artists, musicians and others come from to populate the programmes of our cultural flagships in the future?

Leeds is setting its sights on a year of culture in 2023. We want to see MAP at Hope Foundry going from strength to strength and playing a central role in the year’s activities. In order to achieve that ambition, it requires all of us to get behind MAP and support its campaign to purchase and secure its current home. In the early days of Project Space Leeds, we were grateful for the support of Leeds City Council and Arts Council England. But no less essential was the support of numerous individuals and businesses who gave their time, advocacy, expertise, services and support for free – and sometimes their money too. I urge everyone here to get behind this amazing organisation in any way that you can – together we can ensure that we have Hope for another 10 years into the future.”

Please consider supporting MAP’s bid to purchase Hope Foundry in any way you can, and show your support using #togetherwehavehope. Thank you.

Reflections from Rijeka

This isn’t the report I thought I’d be writing when I set off to a recent conference on participatory governance in culture (with my ace travelling companions, Leila Jancovich from the University of Leeds, and Dawn Fuller and Jon Price from arts organization Space2), in the Croatian port city of Rijeka. What I expected to be doing, alongside giving a paper based on my PhD research into artist-led initiatives and their long-standing engagement with forms of collectivity, was feeding back, through personal reflection, on the potential for participatory governance within the scope of Leeds’ bid to host the European Capital of Culture [ECoC] title in 2023 – informed by the debates and case studies brought together through this international gathering of over 100 participants from 30 nations. I wanted to use this opportunity to help inform and strengthen the work of the bid’s ‘engagement’ sub-group, where I make my contribution. However, when the bombshell from Brussels landed early on the morning of the 23 November, it changed everything. I approached the rest of the conference through differently-tuned ears, finally returning home rather unexpectedly feeling far more hopeful about the aftermath and the potential to turn a bad situation into a good one, than you might think. Let me explain.

Installation view of Tomislav Gotovac: Crisis Anticipator, at MMSU, Rijeka, 22 September – 26 November 2017

Rijeka is hosting ECoC in 2020, and it’s evident from what we saw during our visit that, just over two years out, investment coming into the city is already achieving tangible results. For example, we visited the brand new Museum for Modern and Contemporary Art (MMSU), which opened just two months ago with a retrospective of the work of Tomislav Gotovac, the late and celebrated Serbian-born Croatian conceptual artist whose whole life seems to have been an elaborately-constructed performance. The Museum is now housed in the former Rikard Benčić palace in the west of the city, built in 1752 as the headquarters of a sugar refinery, where light and airy galleries have been sensitively crafted within the building’s beautifully restored and repurposed interiors. Prior to this, the Museum had been ‘squatting’ in a much smaller space in a building shared with the municipal library, which limited the potential for expansive, ambitious programming, and inhibited public access to the important collections. This move to a new home is a game-changer, and the palace sits among a suite of other derelict buildings all earmarked for redevelopment to house various cultural institutions, with funds to be made available through the ECoC title. So far so good – we’re all familiar by now with how the capital of culture framework can achieve these sorts of highly visible arts infrastructure projects. And lovely this one is.

Exterior of the Delta 4 building, Rijeka

However, later that day I made my way to an equally arresting, through rather different, former warehouse building (Delta 4) on the docks in the east of the city, to meet the artists who make up the Delta 5 collective. This artist-led initiative, with a dozen or so members, is the only organized studio provider in a city where the talent drain is acute due to post-industrial decline. Structural issues within the existing local visual arts provision and the national and sub-national political context mean that it’s particularly difficult to sustain a creative practice. To date, their activities remain seemingly invisible to the larger institutions and continue outside of the official 2020 programme. Over lunch which they prepared together, washed down with wine produced as an art project by Tomislav, one of the group’s members, from grapes sourced from a derelict vineyard near the city, they told me how their tenure in the building, where they occupy one half of a spacious floor, is uncertain due to its contested ownership. This long-running legal dispute between the city and the port authority shows no signs of resolving itself any time soon. In addition, an ominous ‘masterplan’ for redevelopment of the delta (a new ‘urban living’ quarter is envisaged) has recently emerged, raising the prospect of rising rents and the real threat of relocation should the city’s vision become a reality. This is ironically exactly the sort of major urban planning project that hosting ECoC could begin to lever. The offices of Rijeka2020 are about to move into the same building on the floor above, giving a temporary level of protection at least until the big year itself, but potentially simultaneously triggering a process of gentrification that artists rarely find themselves on the right side of in the long run.

In the meantime they continue to pay the rent, funding this themselves through the studio rents, funded in turn through part-time jobs such as lecturing at the city’s Academy of Applied Arts. The overhanging uncertainty however, coupled with lack of resources, is preventing them from developing a lovely room on their floor as a future residency and project space where they hope to host a public programme and exchanges with other groups and artists from Croatia and beyond. In other words, a familiar scenario of precarious invisibility, exacerbated to an extreme here by the absence of any funding schemes at national level which are currently accessible to them, as they are not a major public institution. This is a sobering reality that puts things into perspective somewhat for those of us who regularly complain about the imperfections of arts funding schemes at home. Only the relatively recent Kultura Nova Foundation, established in 2011 to provide a new framework for the support of civil society organizations working with contemporary arts and culture, offers a chink of light for the future – if the Delta 5 group can surpass their current, liminal status and overcome the immediate issues facing them to get onto an even keel.

Hopping back to the conference, these thoughts in mind, it was intriguing to hear the presentation given by Roland Zarzycki the following day, during one of the conference’s liveliest panel sessions, specifically focusing on the relationship between participatory governance and ECoC through local perspectives (although invitations to contribute to the debate had been extended to many former host cities prior to 2017, nearly all declined – which was interesting in itself). Roland’s entertaining presentation focused on his personal experience of being part of the delivery team for Wroclaw in Poland, which hosted ECoC last year – although he left the process in 2014 for reasons that soon became crystal clear. What he talked about was, in essence, the gap between anticipation, assumption and desire (the heady mix of things that can lead any of us to convince ourselves about something we think we want very badly) and the reality experienced in the cold light of day – which in this case amounted to one of frustration, disappointment, disillusionment and anger. What Roland termed ‘over-optimistic presuppositions’ about the potential for big, genuine and transformative change swirling around the initial elation of winning the competition, soon gave way to a feeling that the same old status quo was simply re-establishing itself through other means. The reality for Wroclaw was that five years wasn’t long enough to achieve meaningful transformation; that a major skills gap revealed itself – the capacity simply didn’t exist within the cultural sector to deliver the ambitious projects that everyone proposed; that genuine co-production and participatory action wasn’t at all facilitated by the internal competition for the available funds that the process effectively imposed upon the sector; and the realisation that the EU’s interest in monitoring and evaluation of the process (felt to be absent during the run-in to the year itself) only extended as far as demonstrating externally what an amazing success everything had been. In short, that belief and hard work weren’t in themselves enough to overcome the systemic issues inherent within the ECoC framework, and Roland’s perception was that international attention and relationships drifted away post-2016, the city returning to its prior status as ‘cultural desert’ (his description). In the event, nothing really changed.

During the following panel discussion, themes repeatedly emerged around the potential pitfalls of ‘festival’ type approaches, as opposed to one genuinely focused on process, and the dangers of ‘mission drift’ associated with stepping into a terrain where the agenda is being set by someone else. In response to questions from the floor, the panel, all experienced observers of the processes involved in ECoC, voiced their thoughts on this framework as one which lends itself to hit-and-run spectacle as opposed to genuinely participatory processes, and which encourages competition at the expense of collaboration. They also commented on the absence of an ‘ECoC clinic’ and the lack of knowledge transfer about their experiences between host cities. Acknowledging that the context of Wroclaw differs significantly from that of Leeds in important ways, and that Roland’s presentation was clearly coloured by bitter personal experience, this session was nonetheless sobering and left me deeply concerned for what ECoC might actually have meant for all of us working on the Leeds bid in the belief that hosting 2023 could be genuinely transformative for our city and its communities.


The conference itself was brilliantly organized and staged by Kultura Nova – three days of rich content shared by passionate cultural actors from Africa, Australia, India, North America, and right across Europe, including the UK. This growing global interest in the potential and absolute necessity of finding new participatory forms of governance, co-production and commoning which can better address the structural inequalities of societies internationally, was inspiring and galvanizing to witness and be part of. Leila Jancovich’s thought-provoking keynote address on the first morning set the tone for the whole event, urging caution in relation to a 50-year discourse on participation which has so far failed to address rising inequalities globally. As the conversation on participation has grown, so has public engagement in many ways been declining, evidenced for example in historically low voter turnout in western Europe. ‘Participation’ has become a term whose ubiquity and messy definition have led to potential meaninglessness. Leila’s provocation asked us to consider whether current discourse on participation exercises a form of social control that maintains the status quo, focusing too much on an idea of participation in culture that positions non-participants as a deficit, instead of valuing what people already do.

Time and time again across the three days, we heard that meaningful ‘participation’ is difficult, time-consuming and expensive. That wanting to explore co-governance means embracing the idea of a continuum – it’s a constantly evolving process – that will require tolerance and space for failure, setbacks and dissent. In approaching culture as a ‘contact zone’ between people, we need to consistently acknowledge and pay attention to the contested nature of this space, its push and pull. The risk is that participation, done carelessly, equals nothing more than empowerment-lite. And yet, so many engaging speakers shared information on faithful attempts all over the world to surmount these challenges in a bid to do things differently. Case studies on projects everywhere from Cosmo City in South Africa, to Bangalore in India, and much closer to home in Hebden Bridge bore testament to the ongoing and active struggle to forge local agency in the face of the intransigent dogma of cultural policy formation on a national and supra-national level.

The title of the Gotovac retrospective at MMSU was Crisis Anticipator – Don’t Ask Where We’re Going. Through his performance works which engage with filmic structures and devices, the artist spent his life playing with ideas of real and fictive (auto)biography. At this juncture, and after last week’s deeply disappointing news, Leeds has two options: we can continue writing a fictional biography of the Leeds which successfully bid to host ECoC in 2023, and everything we imagine that might have brought… or we can continue on the journey we’ve set out on together by another route, and with our eyes wide open – strengthening and deepening the real potential to embrace participatory governance as a principle for achieving the meaningful change that is so desperately needed across many facets of our city. I’m not a naysayer – I believe that, among the undoubted challenges, many valuable things have already happened through the 2023 conversation to date, and hopefully there is an energy and a will to find a way forwards, whether that turns out to be outside of ECoC or not. But having listened to everything that was said in Rijeka, it’s clear that from here, realistically we already need to think about 2033, 2043 and beyond. Real change requires generations. And we need to think very carefully about what we mean by ‘participation’ within the bid and whatever comes out of it. We can’t afford to regard culture as a toolbox for ‘fixing’ communities. We need to think about what is already happening under our noses that we just can’t see yet, in the way that Delta 5 were invisible to a conference happening literally 5 minutes’ walk away. For me personally, these three days in Rijeka will inform how I approach my role as a curator and as a citizen for many years to come.

Above all, the conference in Rijeka brought together what one speaker termed ‘a community of practice in a learning process’, and urged us to keep exploring, against the difficulties, how we can ‘DO IT TOGETHER’ better. An expression of optimism and promise for the future.


Thank you to Leeds2023 and the School of Fine Art, History of Art & Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds, who generously supported my travel to Rijeka and attendance at the conference. Participatory Governance in Culture: Exploring Practices, Theories and Policies. DO IT TOGETHER was at the Croatian Cultural Centre, Rijeka, from 22-24 November 2017. Many sessions were filmed and will be available on the conference website     

Announcing the ‘East Leeds Project’, part of Leeds’ bid to be European Capital of Culture in 2023

I’m delighted to announce that the East Leeds Project [ELP] is part of the Bid Book which formally launches the city’s ambition to secure the title of European Capital of Culture in 2023. The Bid Book, launched today, will be given a good send-off by the city at a celebration on 27 October, the final date for submissions.

The ELP is part of Leeds’ first stage bid submission for European Capital of Culture 2023. From the Bid Book:

The ELP will be a major new visual art and public realm programme that will occupy green spaces in a wide corridor of land and space running north to south through East Leeds. The project is the concept of and will be led by international and Leeds-based curator Kerry Harker. The ELP is a way to think through the issue of deprived ‘east ends’ that many cities across Europe have in common, linking and exploring an issue shared between Leeds, Paris and Helsinki (and London and Glasgow). The ambition is to enhance the aspiration and skills of those who live in east Leeds and to create a stronger sense of collective ownership over how this area might develop in the future. The project brings together a collective of cultural and community arts organisations working at a local level in the area, including Space2, Chapel FM, Gipton Together, Wyke Beck Valley Friends and Canal Connections. The ELP is also building links with Rotterdam-based, internationally-renowned artist and innovator Daan Roosegaarde.

I’m looking forward to working with local and European artists and partners to deliver visual arts activity in east Leeds from 2018 onwards, and to building Curator Works as an artist-led organization to deliver this ambitious new project.

Further information on the Leeds 2023 bid and the celebratory send-off on 27 October, can be found here.

Kerry Harker, October 2017



Peter Mitchell – Planet Yorkshire

The first survey show of work by Leeds-based photographer Peter Mitchell will take place at Impressions Gallery in Bradford this autumn, co-curated by me and the gallery’s Director Anne McNeill. Peter Mitchell: Planet Yorkshire will run from 16 September to 3 December.

Although born in Salford, Peter has become synonymous with Leeds, the city where he has lived and worked for the last 44 years. Peter’s inestimable contribution to contemporary photographic practice in the UK came in the form of the pioneering colour documentary work that he made in the 1970s and 80s. Having arrived in Leeds in 1972, and whilst working as a truck driver for Sunco, Peter toured the city and documented its people and decaying, post-industrial landscape, during his rounds. He spent years visiting the site of the great social housing experiment, the flats at Quarry Hill, during their demolition: the results formed and exhibition at Leeds City Art Gallery, and the highly sought-after book ‘Memento Mori’. Out of print until earlier this year, a facsimile edition from RRB Publishing is now available through the Impressions Gallery bookshop, although I still treasure my copy of the original, a happy ebay find.

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Kirkstall Power Station, 1986 © Peter Mitchell

Peter’s solo exhibition at Impressions Gallery in 1979 (then located in York) was titled A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission, and it had an enormous influence on his contemporaries, among them Martin Parr. This seminal exhibition has been recreated in its entirety, from the original negatives and for the first time in 37 years, for the prestigious Arles 2016 photo festival in the south of France, which runs until 25 September. It’s wonderful to see that Peter is finally being recognized as a major figure of British photography, and to follow the adventures of this distinctly analogue photographer at Arles via Twitter and Instagram.

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From ‘Portrait of Sheffield’, 1978 © Peter Mitchell

Martin Parr included Peter’s work in the exhibition Colour Before Color (the clever title proposes that European photographers came to colour documentary work before their counterparts in the US) which he curated at Hasted Hunt in New York in 2007. I first met him in late 2007 when planning the exhibition Strangely Familiar, a two-person show with work by Peter and Swiss photographer Eric Jaquier, which I curated at Project Space Leeds in 2008. But although his work has been included in several such group shows, including exhibitions at The Photographer’s Gallery, the Barbican, and Tate Britain, until now there has not been a major survey demonstrating the breadth of his photographic practice.

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From ‘The Derwent’, 1982 © Peter Mitchell

The show at Impressions will finally rectify this. It will include work never shown before, or not seen in decades, and will reach out beyond the boundaries of Peter’s adopted home to cover work made between the 1970s and now across Yorkshire – in Sheffield, Scarborough, Harrogate, Harewood, and the Derwent Valley, among other locations. And although best know for his cityscapes, Planet Yorkshire will demonstrate that Peter has frequently trained his ever-curious eye on the rural landscape as well, including his now-famous series of thinly-disguised self-portraits in the form of the scarecrows he has found and lovingly documented, scattered across Yorkshire’s farmlands. The scarecrows were the subject of an excellent review by Geoff Dyer published recently in the New York Times magazine – further proof that the wider world has finally come knocking at Peter’s door (friends in the north have long recognized his greatness of course). A lightly spiritual tone runs through Peter’s work on the city and countryside both.

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From ‘Annals of a Life-threatening Postcode’, 2016 © Peter Mitchell

Selected images (some made this year) from Annals of a Life-threatening Postcode, Peter’s ongoing documentation of the street in Leeds where he lives, capturing the houses and gardens of its characters, as well as its graffiti, decay and detritus, bring his practice refreshingly into the 21st Century. Far from being stuck in the 70s, Peter has continued to photograph consistently through the intervening decades and his work has ongoing relevance for younger generations of creatives who seem to periodically ‘rediscover’ him, as I did in 2007.

I’m very pleased to be working with Peter and Anne on this long-overdue celebratory exhibition and will post more news as the project and related events as they develop. Further info and images are on the Impressions website.

Pic, top: Frances Gavan’s Ghost Train, Leeds, 1988 © Peter Mitchell

PhD Research Project

Artist-led initiatives and cultural value/s in the contemporary art sector in Britain from 1990s to the present

Yesterday I announced that I’ve been awarded the Amanda Burton Scholarship to allow me to undertake PhD research within the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds. Here are some brief initial thoughts on the shape of that research into the artist-led initiatives (art spaces, roving curatorial enterprises, publishing, activism, alternative models for art education etc) that have been one of the key features of contemporary visual arts practice in Britain over recent decades.

Given this pivotal role within the art ecology (for example, the obvious support that they give to early career artists through the provision of studio space and exhibition opportunities post graduation), I have for a long time found it frustrating that there has been remarkably little in the way of systematic and critical analysis of artist-led activities. It’s difficult to find anything that considers their structures and formation, or aims to evaluate their effects and place within the increasingly commercialized and centralised administration of contemporary art.

It has been a full decade since ‘Measuring the Experience’, Susan Jones’ important research paper on the scope and value of artist-led projects, was published and there have been material changes to the sector since then. And although it’s encouraging to see artist-led organisations engaging in collaborative research on the subject (for example Eastside Projects recently offered a fully-funded PhD at Birmingham City University for a researcher to look at ‘Making Art Public: Expanding the Role of the Artist-led Space’), there is still much to do to ensure that a consideration of the artist-led sector makes its way into some key current debates, through agencies such as Arts Council England, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Culture Forum North or the Creative Industries Federation, to name a few.

The AHRC’s Cultural Value Project (2013-15) looked into the question of why the arts and culture matter, and how their effects on individuals and society are captured. The project’s final report, ‘Understanding the value of arts & culture’, was published in March 2016. This drew on 70 pieces of original research which collectively made up the Cultural Value Project, along with critical reviews of the literature on cultural value, and specialist workshops. Whilst the report cites research on the voluntary or amateur arts, it has nothing specific to say on the artist-led sector. Its 32 pages of references to works cited within the report contain very little of relevance: only two such reports are cited, and both of these relate more specifically to the role of artists in regeneration and the built environment.

Professor John Holden has also written on cultural value. His 2015 report commissioned by the AHRC considered culture as an ecology of ‘complex interdependencies.’ Holden suggests that the ecology of culture could be thought of as the three highly interactive spheres of what he calls ‘publicly funded culture, commercial culture and homemade culture.’ My study will consider where the artist- led sector sits within Holden’s useful ‘ecology’ structure, since the artist-led frequently displays characteristics of all three types of culture he identifies. For example, some artist-led organisations receive subsidy (directly from the state or philanthropy) which might characterise them as ‘publicly funded culture’; however, many artist-led organisations are largely or even wholly self-funded, which may locate them more within Holden’s concept of ‘homemade culture’. This however is problematic in relation to the amateur or voluntary nature of much of what he terms ‘homemade culture’. It is also true that many artist-led organisations have a relationship with Holden’s ‘commercial culture’, given that they are increasingly engaging in activities such as representing artists at international art fairs.

Holden’s concept of interdependency is useful in thinking through the artist-led, and he acknowledges that in reality ‘all three spheres described above operate as mixed- economy models’, but his report does not specifically address the artist-led sector itself.

The Cultural Value Project also omits mention of Jones’ 1996 report, and completely overlooks the work of the Common Practice (London) group. Common Practice is an advocacy group for the small-scale visual arts sector in London. It has commissioned research on the value of small-scale visual arts organisations with relevance to the artist-led sector, and to organisations outside of the capital, with whom it has engaged through events such as symposia. The work of this London-based group has now encouraged the creation of similar forums in New York and Los Angeles, also now engaged in commissioning research relevant to this study.

My research will aim to study and assess the value and impact of artist-led initiatives, and to propose related strategies both for their continuation (even under the increasing pressures they have experienced from changing economic conditions since 2008), and their potential relevance elsewhere within the sector. Among many other questions I’ll be asking how relevant the artist-led sector is today in sustaining artists’ networks, nurturing collective/collaborative practices and talent development, and ensuring that there is space and time for artists to take risks within their practice.

The study will hopefully have relevance to the development of the contemporary art sector and curatorial practice broadly within the UK; to research on cultural value and the ‘case for support’ of the arts; to the formation of funding policy and priorities; and to growing relationships between the HE and cultural sectors.

The trajectory of my career from artist to curator over the last 20 years, which includes co-founding the artist-led projects Vitrine (2004-6) and Project Space Leeds (2006-), which led to the opening of The Tetley in 2013, will be of relevance and has created the impetus for this focused research. I’m also excited about the opportunity to engage with the incredibly active artist-led sector in Leeds, which continues to flourish and flower, and which adds immeasurably to the cultural richness of the city. And the study will inform my own continuing practice as a newly independent curator.

I’m keen to hear from new artist-led projects around the UK, existing projects with whom I’m not yet connected, and anyone interested in talking about the research further, so please get in touch. I’ll keep posting updates here as my research gets underway from October…







Art and Industry Part 1 – Play / Pause

Art and Industry Part 1: Play / Pause, Middlesbrough, Saturday 4 June 2016

I grew up on industrial Teesside, an area possibly much-maligned in the nation’s thinking (where it imagines anything at all), but for which I retain a lot of affection. During my 1970s childhood, all of my schoolmates’ Dads worked either at ICI (where my Dad was a lorry driver) or at British Steel, two long-gone titans of British industry. Increasingly I’m feeling the need to revisit Teesside, conceptually and physically, being as it is a complicated melting pot of post-industrialism, severe social inequality, culture-led regeneration, and breathtaking landscapes – both natural and man-made. It is in my DNA. It is a region somehow apart from everywhere else, and definitely different. Its day, I hope, is yet to come.

So I was intrigued to attend Play / Pause, at the Heritage Gallery in Middlesbrough, an open event organised by Mark Devereux Projects as part of represented artist Nicola Ellis’ ongoing research project into the turbulent history of UK Steel. Ellis’ father is an engineer in the steel industry and so she’s always enjoyed an insider’s view and this has ultimately led her to examine steel as a sculptural material in her artistic practice.

Nicola Ellis and John Warman
Artist Nicola Ellis and Councillor John Warman.

During her recent touring show ‘More room for error’, Ellis created a new, site-responsive work for &Model Gallery here in Leeds: thin, welded steel rods pierced the walls and floor of the entire three-storey space in an apparently endless loop akin to a colossal metal doodle. The welded joints, normally hidden, were here placed centre-stage. Ellis has studied traditional steelworking techniques, only to subvert them by creating works with deliberately visible ‘bad’ welding.

Continuing her research into the steel industry, the ‘Play / Pause’ project has taken Ellis to centres of production in Scunthorpe, Middlesbrough and Port Talbot, meeting with current and ex-workers, artists with industry experience, heritage experts, fabricators, and representatives from local authorities, among others. This latest event in Middlesbrough brought together individuals from the arts and from the steel industry, to share their experiences and encourage discussion about the industry’s past and its possible futures. During the day there were presentations from Councillor John Warman, Mayor of Neath and passionate campaigner on behalf of the Port Talbot steelworks where he worked for over 30 years; Tony Charles, artist and director of Middlesbrough’s Platform A Gallery and a former steelworker for 16 years; and husband and wife Matthew and Joy Buckley. Matthew works in the power station at the Scunthorpe steelworks, and Joy works at nearby 20-21 Visual Arts Centre in the town.

Part of my motivation for attending this event was to continue to think through a question that has interested me ever since the project to create The Tetley (which I co-founded in 2013) began, given that it involved the repurposing of a post-industrial building, the former Directors’ offices of the Joshua Tetley & Son brewery, as a space for contemporary art. The steel girders that support The Tetley were, incidentally, forged in the legendary Dorman Long factory in Middlesbrough. The Heritage Gallery itself is housed within the stunning former offices of the Cargo Fleet Iron Company, built in 1916 and now being repurposed as modern offices as well as the Gallery and a café.

The question I’ve been pondering is this: Do art and industry have meaningful things to say to each other? Taking on a post-industrial building, especially one with such recent and emotive history as The Tetley, concerned me in many ways. It’s possible to see contemporary art as parasitic upon these corpses of decaying industry – our country is littered with them and not a few have found a new life through the arts. Whilst it’s also possible to celebrate the creative repurposing of these buildings for the public benefit, it seems appropriate (perhaps essential) to acknowledge and respect that history rather than sweep it under the carpet and move on.

At The Tetley we did this through an opening programme in three parts: ‘A New Reality’ was spread over nine months from 2013-14, during which artists including Emma Rushton & Derek Tyman, James Clarkson, Sam Belinfante and Simon Lewandowski, Rehana Zaman, Rob Kennedy, Ben Cain, Aidan Moesby, Rachel Adams, COPY, Edmund Francis, Stephen Iles, and Nous Vous all examined the history and future use of the building and wider site, focusing on themes of labour, fading histories, and the cyclical process of change.

During the Play / Pause event, the speakers’ presentations turned repeatedly to ideas of making and production, usefulness, camaraderie and collaboration, politicization and the unions, public subsidy and sustainability, the market and the role of the EU that all felt highly relevant in the context of individual artistic practice today and of course the function of the contemporary art institution. Councillor Warman spoke compellingly about the ‘industrial vandalism’ that has torn apart local communities supported by the steelworks, and about the shared cultural values that unite workers, families, and local economies dependent on the industry, across Port Talbot and Teesside. The statistics are sobering – for every steelworker’s job lost, another five are lost in the wider regional economy, in the service and delivery industries clustered around these centres of manufacturing.

The failure of successive governments to invest in the future of UK steel and other manufacturing industries, and the way the steel industry in particular has been kicked around like a political football, was a common theme running through presentations and comments from attendees, including several who had worked in its middle management. Councillor Warman made it clear he will be voting #Remain on 23 June, as Wales has received far greater subsidy from the EU than it has from central government. Other key issues were raised: that steel is also a strategic issue in relation to defence; the way that the current UK government is blocking an EU ruling on tariffs that should be applied to Chinese steel imports, meaning that British steel can’t compete on price; and the quality issues that Chinese imports present – both the construction and automobile industries depend on the highest quality product being available.

All in all, Play / Pause was a fascinating event, bringing together a slightly unusual gathering of interested, and passionate, individuals, and intertwining contemporary art and industry in a way that demonstrated there is in fact much synergy between participants in both sectors. Perhaps this came into focus most clearly when Councillor Warman read out, despite telling the gathering ‘I’m not an artist, and I’m not a poet,’ a poem he had felt compelled to write in protest at what is being done to the industry which he said is in his lifeblood. It was rather a good poem too, and was published by the local Port Talbot paper. In a moment of great cultural crisis such as this, the ex-steelworker reaches for his pen, the artist picks up her welding gun.

Nicola Ellis’ research project Play/Pause is funded by Arts Council England.

‘The North – a nebulously distinct place…’

Culture Forum North symposium, Howard Assembly Rooms, 24 May

The quote above is taken from the symposium’s opening remarks by Alistair Hudson, Director of Middlesbrough’s mima and CFN’s Chair, at its first symposium in Leeds on Tuesday. A grand gathering of folk from the HE and arts/culture sectors came together to debate the virtues and potential pitfalls of working together more closely, and of course many such partnerships already exist – not least between Opera North, host for the day’s events, and the University of Leeds just up the road.

Culture Forum North is an open network of partnerships between Higher Education and the cultural sector across the North, and it turns out we’re already doing it rather better than colleagues elsewhere, apparently. The Forum aims to achieve impact beyond these individual partnerships however, in order to make a difference to society at a regional and national level. Three key agendas dominate: Research (how to make it meaningful); Creative Careers (how we can shape society through skills and learning); and Public Engagement (responding to the challenges and achieving impact). In an era where our Universities are becoming ‘civic institutions,’ Hudson wanted the audience to think about how the big social agendas are being set, and by whom: ‘Who’s telling the story?’

In his opener, Hudson described the two tribes, i.e. attendees from the HE and the culture sectors (he missed his opportunity to come on stage to the classic by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, a great northern band who emerged from Liverpool’s punk scene in the late 70s), as ‘two groups on either side of a dance hall’, a rather more polite analogy. This was a theme picked up by warm-up act Kate Fox, a stand-up poet with a lot of chutzpah, whose witty lines occasionally turned risqué as she riffed on ideas of what it is to be northern, and what partnership means (the risqué bit had to do with whether you spit or swallow).

Sir Peter Bazalgette was up next and used his keynote speech to demonstrate the richness of existing HE/culture partnerships across the North, and to argue that such partnerships are one of the ways in which the arts and culture sector is doing well at diversifying its funding streams in the post-cuts era. Whilst this is particularly true for larger NPOs, I’m not so sure that HE partnership offers any immediate answers elsewhere in the arts ecology. More on that later. However, on diversity there is still much to be done and Bazalgette urged the HE sector to do more to encourage ‘the cream of talent from every background’ into careers in the arts and culture – the ‘incubator for the creative industries.’

Andrew Thompson, CEO of the Arts and Humanities Research Council followed, and outlined how many arts and cultural organisations are already building significant research capacities of their own, it’s not just confined to our Universities. But he posed the intriguing question of whether we as a country understand why we’re good at creative economy, and noted that there is ‘more work to do to understand the role of research in the UK’s creative industries.’ Thompson echoed Bazalgette’s comments on diversity, urging that HE/culture partnerships embrace diversity as a source of creativity and place the arts and humanities at the forefront of this key conversation: ‘Diversity as opportunity, not just as obligation.’

Pat Connor, Head of Development and Events for BBC North, was the last of the three keynote speakers, and focused largely on ideas of placemaking and local identity. The BBC’s move north to Salford, five years ago now, was triggered in part by what used to be a stronger sense of public dissatisfaction with the work of the BBC the further north you went. The move aimed to close that gap, and Connor outlined how new programming engages with northern places and ‘authentic local voices.’ The Beeb seems to be putting its money where its mouth is on this, as Director General Tony Hall has announced that 2017 will be ‘unashamedly focused’ on Hull during its year as City of Culture.

A panel discussion followed, chaired by Jane Tarr, Head of Resilience for Arts Council England, with smaller group discussions during the afternoon session focusing on a myriad of related issues around aspects of strategic partnership working, as well as the vexed question of whether there is something that defines a concept of ‘The North’. On this, there was some discussion in the first session I attended (‘The idea of North: Making connections between the cultural research agendas coming out of the northern powerhouse’) about the ‘Great Exhibition of the North’. This was announced by the Chancellor in 2014 and will take place somewhere in the North in 2018. How that ‘somewhere’ will be determined is the contentious part: far from strengthening the idea of a northern powerhouse by facilitating collaborative working to unify cities across the north, those very cities have been thrown into a competitive bid process. Although some participants were constrained by what they could say publicly at this point, with a deadline for the bids approaching in June, it seems that Bradford, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield at least will be throwing their hats into the ring. Some local authorities have apparently written to central government to protest at the way this initiative has been handled, and at what could be seen as a deliberately divisive tendering process – the ‘divide and conquer’ approach. But hasn’t there been a missed opportunity for ‘The North’ collectively to demonstrate solidarity and steal a march on the northern powerhouse rhetoric by simply saying ‘no’, with one voice, and refusing to bid? Why is the North dancing to this tune?

In summary, the symposium offered an energizing day, and a great opportunity to catch up with friends and colleagues, that felt galvanizing to a group of passionate supporters of the value of Higher Education and the arts and culture. The day left no-one in any doubt as to the high stakes we’re all playing for at present. For me, there was no sense of a schism between the dance partners, just a tangible sense of urgency and a strong collegiate desire for meaningful partnership to generate real impact.

Partnership working was posited as the key to achieving real change and impact on a raft of critical issues including place making, diversity, cultural education and talent retention. There was challenge too. One of the most impassioned pleas was from Sharon Gill of ROAR (Rotherham Open Arts Renaissance). Her direct question to Peter Bazalgette after his keynote clearly invoked frustration born of a desire to nurture creativity in a place with a critical absence of infrastructure for the arts and culture. The local authority, although supportive, are unable to contribute financially, and existing businesses in the town can’t bring the match funding to bear that might catalyse public investment in capital development. Without physical venues in the town to perform and display work, talent and audiences can’t be nurtured and retained. Bazalgette asked whether Gill felt that Rotherham has the leadership it needs, someone who can stand up and articulate a strong vision for the place. In this way, Rotherham seems to present a clear opportunity for action research on the subject of HE partnership.

In his closing remarks, Dr Edward Harcourt, Pro-Vice Chancellor for External Engagement at Liverpool John Moores University, and CFN’s Vice-Chair, asked who wasn’t already in the room. This seemed a key question: although Harcourt noted the absence of local authorities and the corporate sector, as someone working primarily within the visual arts, the absence of small, grass-roots and artist-led organisations seemed particularly telling. With the exception of Castlefield Gallery (Director Kwong Lee led a discussion group on talent retention in the North), a strong aspect of the visual arts across the North was missing. Working within this sector over the last 20 years (it’s comprised of studio providers, galleries, roving curatorial projects, publishing etc) it’s sometimes frustrating that this group, with such extensive experience of nurturing creativity, isn’t at the table. Equivalent representatives from music, dance, theatre etc were likely missing too. The day’s discussions were mostly characterized by taking place at a high level between larger institutions. How can the voices of individual artists and practitioners, and very small organisations and groups, be brought into this conversation? What value and values do they hold that are relevant to the debate? They are a vital and characteristic part of the northern cultural ecology, which isn’t understood, celebrated or supported anywhere near well enough yet. How can partnership with HE come about where capacity is very low and everything’s geared towards daily survival, how could a conversation take place, and what could be the mutual benefits? Food for thought.

I’ll leave the last word to Kate Fox, whose excellent poem summing up the day’s events urged the room to ‘Risk a boogie in the Culture Forum North dance hall’. I’m in and I’m dancing, so long as Frankie is asking.

Artists Studio provision – comings and goings

Last week I woke up to the shock news that the building occupied by Rogue Studios in central Manchester for the past 15 years, Crusader Mill near to Piccadilly station, has been sold to developers Capital and Centric. It’s game over and all 100 artists based there will have to leave.

This is a serious loss to the art scene in Manchester, and indeed the north: Rogue, which celebrated its 20th anniversary with Open Studios in October, has become an institution and a firm fixture within the north’s contemporary art infrastructure. Many artists based there (Liz West, Owl Project, Hilary Jack, Nicola Dale, Mike Chavez-Dawson and Pat Flynn among them) have earned a level of visibility that gave Rogue its reputation as a home for serious practitioners.

I am saddened that personal friends are losing their studio spaces and that the energy around this important centre for contemporary art could be lost as its residents disperse to other corners of Manchester and further afield. Following a meeting of the steering group on Tuesday evening, Rogue posted an update via twitter which confirmed that they will need to relocate by December 2016. Rogue also used the message to thank all the supporters who have come forward since the news broke on Monday. Studio artist and steering group member Hilary Jack posted a typically upbeat twitter message that reads: #relocation #relocation #relocation and #Open Studios 2016!

Over in Wakefield, the start of December saw the reopening of The Art House, where I’m currently an Interim Director. The Art House has a long history too, having been founded in 1994, but hasn’t yet enjoyed the wider visibility that it deserves as a major site for artistic production in Yorkshire. From its based in Wakefield, this national organisation provides space, time and support for artists and enables debate around diversity within contemporary artistic production.

The Art House, Wakefield

The event celebrated completion of the Art House’s £3m conversion of the Drury Lane Library, one of Wakefield’s most iconic buildings, in the heart of the cultural quarter around Westgate station. Gifted to the city by Andrew Carnegie in 1906, the Library was well loved by the citizens of Wakefield until its closure in 2012. Now repurposed as an arts centre with support from Arts Council England, the European Regional Development Fund and Wakefield Council, the conversion has added an additional 34 studios to the 14 housed within the Art House’s first building, adjacent to the Library, which opened in 2008. The facilities on site, all fully accessible, now also include a project space, dedicated print studio with laser cutter, meeting rooms for 2-60 people, and a new Reception which has reoriented the building towards the Westgate station side.

Having invested many years in developing high-quality, accessible workspaces across the two buildings, The Art House now represents a major asset for the region and contributor to Yorkshire’s cultural ecology. A small number of studios, described as ‘superb’ by Hepworth Wakefield’s Director, Simon Wallis, are still available in the new Library development – contact me for more details.

The immediate area around Wakefield Westgate, undergoing major regeneration, is also home to Unity Works, Neon Workshops, the Theatre Royal and the soon-to-relocate Beam. It’s exciting to work within the context of a city that has a flourishing cultural offer and a nascent but energetic Arts Partnership, as well as being the home of two internationally important visual arts organisations, The Hepworth Wakefield and Yorkshire Sculpture Park. With additional investment in the form of the £6.5m new West Yorkshire Archives building (including £3.9m from the Heritage Lottery Fund) currently under construction, the future for culture in Wakefield is looking bright.

Finally, in September I posted an urgent appeal on behalf of Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun, the year-old studio group in central Leeds. The organization is still working hard to secure its future, and continues to need your support. Watch out for more news and a Kickstarter campaign coming soon.

In the meantime, if you’re stuck for Christmas present ideas, membership of STCFTHOTS costs just £12 a year – see to sign up and help make a difference to this important place which has brought exciting artists to Leeds from outside the city.

Thoughts on Frieze Art Fair 2015

What can you say about Frieze? I was there on Friday (the Art Fair as opposed to Frieze Masters), my first visit in four years I think, and not much seemed to have changed. Entering through a massive and rather ominous-looking black portal akin to the gateway to Mordor, the giant marquee itself did seem to have grown significantly larger. But other than containing an even more mind-numbing quantity of artworks than ever, an underlying consistency in the familiar presence of paintings, drawings, photographs, films, sculptures and installations quickly confirmed that all of the above are still alive and kicking in the commercial art world. Above and beyond that it’s down to the vagaries of fashion I guess. I lost count of the number of ceramic sculptures by Jesse Wine on show with various galleries – they’re lovely of course, but variety is the spice of life and other ceramicists are available.

The 'Black Gate' doorway to Frieze.
The ‘Black Gate’ doorway to Frieze.

But let’s not get too cynical about it all. For those seeking the thrill of exciting new work, there’s plenty on offer if you’re tenacious about hunting it down. Heading for the farthest reaches of the tent, we found some gems among the stands of younger galleries: Samara Scott’s shallow pool cut into the floor at Sunday Painter (combining her signature assemblage of durable and ephemeral, organic and manmade objects and media), was rightly drawing a lot of attention. Rachel Rose’s to-scale reproduction of the Frieze marquee invited visitors to clamber inside (we did) where coloured lights and amplified animal sounds created an environment separate to the disorientating one of the main Fair. And I enjoyed Ed Fornieles’ installation of half-human, half-comic-book-character body parts, fabricated in the manner of sort toys, at Carlos Ishikawa.

Amie Siegel's amazing Double Negative
Amie Siegel’s ‘Double Negative’.

But my favourite work of the Fair was Amie Siegel’s Double Negative, showing at Simon Preston Gallery. In this clever and engaging installation, comprising two synchronized 16mm films, a colour HD video projection and photographic works, the Artist plays with inverted (negative) film footage of both Le Corbusier’s white Villa Savoye in Poissy, France, and its opposite, a black reproduction built in Canberra, Australia. This copy houses an archive of material relating to Australia’s indigenous peoples, allowing for a wider reading of the work in relation to ideas of original and copy, the archive and the ‘other’. The work will form part of Siegel’s show in Munich next summer.

Elsewhere in the tent, there were long queues to get inside Jeremy Herbert’s installation, another long low building construction. When the doors periodically opened to let someone in or out, steps could be glimpsed leading down through the floor of the marquee into a netherworld where who-knows-what awaited. Mark Leckey’s Inflatable Felix was making a solid bid for having the most selfies taken alongside it, and an unremarkable doorway at the back of the bookshop was found to lead through an unexpected installation with live actors by Asad Raza, one of this year’s commissioned Frieze Projects. One of my favourite stands of the day was Hollybush Gardens, not least because it offered the opportunity to view three new paintings (portraits, one nestled within an old furniture drawer) by the always excellent Lubaina Himid, currently showing in The Feast Wagon at The Tetley (see my post on 6 October). If I had been buying, and not just window-shopping, my money would have been on these.

Lubaina Himid's work at Hollybush Gardens.
Lubaina Himid’s work at Hollybush Gardens.

On an education level, a trip to Frieze can be a bit frustrating though. On many stands, labels are either non-existent or difficult to locate, and there’s frequently no other information about the artists represented available to the mass of Jo/e Public punters paying the handsome ticket price. Silly you if you don’t recognize the artist. Visitors can book onto a variety of guided tours of course, but these cost extra. Friday’s talks programme was also disappointingly sold out and overall it would be great to see more opportunities for visitors eager for enlightenment to have more ways in.

One of the best things about Frieze is bumping into friends and colleagues, and so it was on Friday (hello to lovely folk Greville Worthington, Simeon Barclay, Roger Palmer, Ellie Macgarry, and Ceri Hand). It was exciting, also, to hear that an artist based in Leeds was at Frieze for talks with one or two overseas galleries expressing an interest in the work. Fingers crossed on that front.

Ambika 3
Ambika 3

At the end of day, we squashed in a quick trip down the road to Sunday, billed as ‘London’s emerging art fair’, housed in an amazing hangar-like space at Ambika P3, part of the University of Westminster. Here, the stands were occupied by younger and artist-led galleries, mainly from London but also including Wysing, S1 Artspace, Spike Island and Focal Point Gallery from further afield. These were all showing print editions for sale, with eminently affordable work by big names allowing a more realistic way in to collecting than most of the work over at Frieze. Although back at the main event, the Allied Editions stand (where limited editions, mainly prints, are sold to benefit a number of publicly-funded London galleries) was one of the busiest, with visitors snapping up some real bargains. Proof that, if Frieze shows willing, a broader demographic of collectors might be tempted in and nurtured.

Frieze Art Fair and Frieze Masters were in The Regent’s Park from 14-17 and 14-18 October respectively.

British Art Show 8 in Leeds

Opening week round-up

On social media I’ve adopted the hashtag #ArtMarathon for the ‘feast’ of visual arts activity across Leeds and beyond triggered by the opening this past week of British Art Show 8 at Leeds Art Gallery. It’s the visual arts equivalent of three buses coming along at once. Here are my highlights so far.

Arts students await Ryan Gander and Lydia Yee in conversion at Leeds Art Gallery
Arts students await Ryan Gander and Lydia Yee in conversion at Leeds Art Gallery

On Tuesday evening at Leeds Art Gallery, British Art Show 8 artist Ryan Gander was in conversation with co-curator Lydia Yee. In front of a packed house (around 200 mainly students – great to see), Gander spoke candidly about making art, what objects are, philosophy and ideas, family and biography, money and the business of art, art education, and his artist-pseudonyms (some very funny). Everything except the wheelchair parked next to his seat. And that’s entirely his prerogative.

British Art Show 8 represents 'art on the move': Jude Kelly opening the show at Leeds Art Gallery
British Art Show 8 represents ‘art on the move’: Jude Kelly opening the show at Leeds Art Gallery

The artist invited the audience to text their questions to him on his second phone, the number (07864 693119) in use only for the duration of this project. Yee asked what came first, the objects in his current show at London’s Lisson Gallery, or the stories attached to them. Gander didn’t hesitate in replying that stories matter more to him and that objects are just the leftovers; the object ‘is like the exhaust fumes, or the receipt from a transaction.’ Gander produces compulsively and suffers from self-diagnosed ‘idea diarrhea’. He had stern words for some art students, criticizing those who find excuses for not making anything for weeks: ‘The people who keep making art are the ones who can’t stop making art’. Maybe, but that hardly accommodates serious and debilitating conditions against which some artists heroically battle all their lives, enforcing sometimes long periods of non-productivity. It’s not always a case of picking up where you left off when the condition improves, either, as if artistic production is always a simple linear narrative.

Thursday afternoon saw the launch of The Feast Wagon at The Tetley, the show I’ve co-curated with Zoe Sawyer and Irfan Shah, featuring new commissions by Lubaina Himid and Susan Walsh, Simeon Barclay, and Delaine Le Bas (see my post on 6 Oct). It was wonderful to have the artists present, and the feedback from peers and visitors has been positive so far. Looking forward to reading review coverage that I understand has been commissioned.

Lubaina Himid and Susan Walsh, The Feast Wagons, 2015 (courtesy the Artists)
Lubaina Himid and Susan Walsh, The Feast Wagons, 2015 (courtesy the Artists)

The opening of the object-laden British Art Show itself, on Thursday evening, was a packed and noisy riot of people, outfits, half-heard speeches, and barely-glimpsed artworks. But Leeds Art Gallery looked splendid, better than it has for ages, newly painted and cleared entirely of its permanent collection to accommodate the entire BAS show in one space, against the form of recent incarnations elsewhere. Jude Kelly and Darren Henley used their speeches to politicize on the importance of the arts in today’s world; Councillor Judith Blake used hers as a rallying cry for Leeds’ bid for 2023. But the biggest cheer of the night, rightly deserved, was for Sarah Brown’s role in delivering BAS to Leeds. Installation of the show had gone down to the wire by all accounts, but everything was all right on the night.

Artists do it best: #whatadrag at Live Art Bistro
Artists do it best: #whatadrag at Live Art Bistro

We decamped for a while to the official after-party at The Tetley, before heading off to East Street Arts’ ‘totally unofficial, before during and after’ party at Live Art Bistro on Regent Street. Billed as ‘What a drag,’ a giant dressing-up box, glitter ball, dancefloor and anarchic art-DJs Tracey Emin Soundsystem awaited. I danced until 2am then wimped out. I hear others went on til 6. Leeds City Council and Arts Council officers were spotted dressing up, having fun and letting their hair down like everyone else. It was fun. A really great party by artists, for everyone.

It was an undeniably special night for Leeds, and I know that various venues (including The Tetley) benefitted from visits by London art world folk that we wouldn’t normally have had. That’s got to be good for artists based here. Some of those great and good even braved an early start the next morning to join About Time’s bus tour of several of Leeds’ artist-led venues, and it was good to watch them tweeting and Instagramming their way around the city.

On Friday afternoon it was over to Yorkshire Sculpture Park to hear Peter Murray and Sandy Nairne open the Bill Viola retrospective, taking place in the Underground Gallery and Chapel, in the presence of the artist and his collaborator Kira Perov, executive director of Viola’s studio and also his wife. The Underground Gallery was predictably packed, far too much to attempt to see new work The Trial properly. But arriving early, I managed to catch the two works on show in the Chapel (Tristan’s Ascent and Fire Woman, both 2005) in relative peace. Only a visit to see the works in situ will convince you of the massive emotional force of this experience. Don’t miss it. The presentation of these two extremely powerful films is further proof, for me, that the Chapel is now one of the very best spaces for contemporary art in the region.

Martino Gamper's 'Post Forma' for #BAS8 at Leeds Art Gallery
Martino Gamper’s ‘Post Forma’ for #BAS8 at Leeds Art Gallery

I returned for another look at BAS8 on Saturday. Great to see Leeds Art Gallery so busy, though unfortunately some video works were playing up and not available to view. The team were working hard to sort this out. There’s no way to make overall sense of such a large show (42 artists are taking part) and the number of video works will mean it takes time and return visits to absorb. Early favourites for me are Andrea Büttner’s Critique of the Power of Judgement, a visual essay riffing on Kant’s Critique of Judgement (1790); Ciara Phillips’ poster installation in the entrance hall, produced in collaboration with print studios in the region; Martino Gamper’s animation of the gallery through live workshops by local craft makers (Post Forma); Anthea Hamilton’s perspex ant farm-sculptures; and Alan Kane’s bespoke seating for BAS8 visitors, made from gravestones and powder-coated steel (no-one knows whether to sit on them or not).

Rory Macbeth's Donation Box
Rory Macbeth’s Donation Box for Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun

Finally, on Sunday I went along to open studios at Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun on Wharf Street. This place, home to some of Leeds’ most promising artists, (see my post on 24 Sept) desperately needs support to survive the next few weeks. A print portfolio by studio artists is on sale to support the fundraising drive – save yourself a trip to Frieze and go shopping here instead. If nothing else, it’s worth going along to see Rory Macbeth’s wonderful donation box in the form of a motionless street artist. Please give generously.