New Art Spaces in North East England
Christopher Little, June 2017
The North East of England is home to some fantastic spaces. Stretching all the way from Berwick-upon-Tweed to Amble is the dramatic Northumberland Coastline. Its lonely beaches and towering castles make it one of the country’s finest Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Then there’s the spectacular riverscape and tumbling waterfalls of Upper Teesdale, the winding cobbled streets in the historic city of Durham, and the vibrant and eclectic Quayside on the banks of the River Tyne.
But some of the most interesting and exciting spaces are to be found in the most unexpected of places. In old post offices, call centres, office blocks, retail shops, and even tucked away in the front room of people’s homes. In these unlikely locations, you will find the region’s wealth of artist-led spaces.
They transform their former settings into cultural hubs full of energy and inspiration. Into collective spaces where artists can come together and make things happen. They provide affordable space, peer support, and the freedom for artists to develop their practice.
Each one is unique, with its own character and identity. And with more and more new spaces emerging in the North East, they are forming an increasingly fluid and dynamic sector that enriches the region.
Artist-led spaces can breathe new life in vacant buildings, revitalise forgotten areas and invigorate communities. Many of the buildings they inhabit are done so on a temporary or short-term basis. It is an arrangement that can emancipate artists from financial constraints and grant a licence to experiment. But whilst the transient nature of these spaces can open up new opportunities, it also means that artists must be adaptable to change.
The NewBridge Project at Norham House in Newcastle recently demonstrated this necessity when they were forced to make way for redevelopment. Created by two fine art graduates from Newcastle University in 2010, NewBridge was originally only envisaged as a three-month project. But it grew into a vast cultural venue that encompassed 80 studios, a dark room, a film lab, a rehearsal space, several workshops, project spaces, a bookshop and a gallery.
Showing their collective resilience and determination, NewBridge quickly acquired another premises in the City Centre. Their new home is in the 1920s art deco Carliol House, a Grade II listed building that was once the home of the North Eastern Electric Supply Company.
“When everything has grown so organically and naturally,” says director Charlie Gregory, “how do you capture that and move it into another building? We did a lot of consultation with all our artists to figure out what was important to them. Then when we got this building we collaboratively designed it and decided how it would be used.”
Attempting to translate NewBridge into another space is a monumental task, but it has allowed Carliol House to be tailored to meet the needs of its members. Their new building now has a variety of studio spaces to suit different practices and incomes, as well as dedicated spaces for the self-organised initiatives that run from within NewBridge – such as the wood workshop Tilt.
With the framework of their new home now taking shape, NewBridge can once again look to the future. Their hugely successful artist-led development programme ‘Practice Makes Practice’ is continuing to grow. There are plans to develop their Graduate Programme, which offers a range of benefits such as free studio space and an artist mentor. And they have just announced an open call for their upcoming programme Deep Adaptation, which will support five off-site commissions of up to £5000 each.
“When I graduated there wasn’t much going on,” says Charlie, “there wasn’t loads of galleries to approach and have an exhibition in, there wasn’t all these exciting self-organised initiatives going on. I think it actually helps keep graduates in the region and then they start wanting to do things themselves, which is quite an exciting thing.”
The artist-based collective MILK are one of the many self-organised initiatives that have emerged in recent years. The Newcastle based collective aims to address the lack of opportunities for early-career artists by providing them with platforms to exhibit their work. They began with a pop-up gallery in Byker in November 2015, but have since moved on to exhibit at various galleries across the region.
“We like being nomadic, or peripatetic, or as we like to say, a homeless organisation,” explains member Matt Antoniak. “We like the new challenge of working in different places, it’s something we really thrive upon.”
MILK now operates on a two-fold policy of showcasing their work outside of the region and bringing artists to Newcastle. “We think that’s really important,” says Matt, “it’s part of how you grow a vibrant art scene.”
But MILK are not a collective in the usual sense. Members and individual contributions can fluctuate as they each embark on their own projects. But this freedom allows them to holistically pursue the diverse arts scene they crave with ventures such as ‘Slugtown’ – a new gallery space created by five MILK members in the lounge of their home.
The concept of using one’s home as a creative platform is something artists Hannah Marsden and Toby Lloyd are familiar with. But rather than having a gallery or project space, their home in Newcastle hosts conversations and communal meals.
“HMO Projects happened naturally in some ways,” says Toby, “just from a desire to live more open lives. It started off by having a spare room and hosting people, having conversations over dinner or taking people around the city. We had really interesting conversations and thought this is something special.”
Toby says HMO Projects ‘probably became official’ when the website went up last year, but these conversations have been going on for much longer. They are now in the process of setting up a programme that will support recent graduates. It is in memory of local artist Carole Luby who, like Helen and Toby, generously opened up her home so artists could come together and inspire one another.
Back in the City Centre of Newcastle, Breeze Creatives have been around since 2014. They have established the Abject Gallery and a range of studios at Bamburgh House, but are now planning to open a new space in the Athenaeum Building in Sunderland.
Built in 1849, it is the former home of Sunderland’s Literary and Philosophical Society. Breeze hope to redevelop the historic building to include a gallery space, 14 studios and a pub on the ground floor. The pub will serve as a communal area for those who work above it whilst also being open to the general public.
Describing the gallery space, director Alex Breeze said: “It has stunning 35ft high ceilings, beautiful wooden floors, great skylights for everyone and a really central location. It’s an amazing space to walk into even when it’s not filled with artwork.”
Culture-led regeneration is playing an instrumental role in Sunderland, as the city vies to be the UK City of Culture in 2021. And whilst this gallery space will look to attract international and national artists to the area, Breeze also hope to open other spaces in Sunderland that will provide local emerging artists with platforms to showcase their work.
“I think Sunderland has a really bright future in terms of art projects,” says Alex, “either starting there or moving there, I think it could be really good.”
Follow the River Wear upstream from Sunderland and you will eventually reach Durham City, home to its magnificent Cathedral and Castle, and also the artist-led Empty Shop. Created in 2008 as a temporary pop-up gallery, it has since went on to work with thousands of artists across 37 spaces in the city. They have evolved from a visual arts initiative into a cross-cultural organisation that hosts jazz festivals. The spaces they repurpose can range from office blocks to shop windows, from barbershops to laundrettes. Now they are converting a former Department for Work and Pensions call centre into a dedicated visual arts venue that will support an entire ecology of artists.
Giving the building a very different purpose, the new ‘TESTT Space’ will have 11 artist studios, a dark room, a black box room and three gallery spaces to support community, emerging and professional artists. Whereas the latter two will open over the coming months, the community gallery has already shown a fascinating exhibition from female prisoners at Low Newton Prison, who use art as part of a reflective, rehabilitative process.
Empty Shop is also working with Durham University to give 20-25 students use of a communal space in the new building. During out of term periods, the space will then be used to host temporary student residencies. Because Durham University do not offer a visual arts course, or the facilities to support practitioners, many artists who study other degrees can see their practice stagnate during their time at the university. Director of Empty Shop Nick Maylan said: “The partnership with the university is very much about how we support those students to continue their practice and hopefully create a pipeline of talented students in the area as well.”
In the industrial town of Middlesbrough, Navigator North has been working in partnership with East Street Arts since 2011. Together, they proactively respond to the fluid nature of the artist-led sector by continually sourcing new temporary spaces for artists to use. The seven locations they currently have range from studio spaces in office blocks in Middlesbrough and Stockton-on-Tees, to a pop-up gallery in the Cornmill Centre in Darlington.
Navigator North also run a Professional Development Programme that provides bursaries to emerging artists. These can include free studio space, access to a mentor and the offer of commissioned work. Their STABLE bursary gave five regional early-career artists the opportunity to work with artist Steve Messam, creator of the ‘PaperBridge’, to learn about site-specific installations. Working from an 18th century Grade II listed stable block, they each created work to be displayed at the Festival of Thrift in Kirkleatham, Redcar. After the success of these projects, Navigator North are now hoping to open up their programme to work with both emerging and established artists on the theme of ‘sustainable practice’.
Just a short walk from Navigator North’s main premises in Middlesbrough town centre, is an old Victorian post office. After standing vacant for 20 years, the Grade II listed building has now been transformed into The House of Blah Blah. This multi-purpose space was set up by artist Keren Pearson who, after putting on shows in settings such as car parks, decided she wanted somewhere a little more permanent.
The warehouse-like building, with its Victorian period features and ramshackle charm, is an invigorating alternative to the clean white spaces of commercial galleries. The space recently hosted three exhibitions as part of the Middlesbrough Art Weekender festival, including an experimental sound show by The Auxillary, a new artist-led space that operates from Stockton-on-Tees.
In addition to their art projects, The House of Blah Blah now has a licensed bar, hosts gigs and DJ sets, and has studio spaces for three bands. And of course, there’s also their renowned ‘End of the World’ warehouse parties. Keren says: “It just kind of developed organically from setting up one night exhibitions. More than anything, it’s about creating a buzz around culture.”
Far from the music and revelry of The House of Blah Blah, out in the idyllic Northumberland countryside, lies Allenheads Contemporary Arts. Established by Alan Smith and Helen Ratcliffe in 1994, the artist-led initiative operates out of a Victorian Schoolhouse that overlooks the village of Allenheads. ACA use their rural base to deliver innovative arts projects, such as their recent ‘Chthonic’, which saw three artists and an engineer descend into a subterranean cavern for 72 hours, where they were then tasked with responding to their strange surroundings.
The newest addition to the Schoolhouse grounds is a community observatory, which has been built in conjunction with the North Pennines Area of Natural Beauty Partnership. ACA are going to use the new facilities to draw parallels between the isolated dark of below and the infinity of space, in their upcoming ‘BEYOND’ programme.
“We have a grant from the Seedbed organisation in Newcastle,” says Helen, “to encourage urban based artists to come here and respond to the environment and the night sky. It will give North East artists the opportunity to come out to ACA for short residencies and take advantage of the facilities at the observatory.”
With ACA’s grounds sitting on a hillside above the highest village in England, below some of the darkest skies in the country, the new observatory offers a truly unique platform from which artists can work.
Just as artists can redefine the space they inhabit, a new generation is redefining our very notions of what an artist-space can be. The artist-led initiative DoubleYolk, who are made entirely of Newcastle University Fine Art Students, have used social media to initiate experimental collaborations. By using an open call on Instagram they were able to work with artists from as far away as Indonesia using jpegs, mp3s, and mp4s.
Then there’s the Internet based iouae, founded by Stacey Davidson in Newcastle, which aims to support as many practices and fresh artistic talent as possible via online residencies. By using a virtual platform, iouae has already brought together vast networks of artists who collaborate and encourage one another via group chats. And whilst the artist-led initiative is soon to present its first ‘real life’ exhibition, and is also working with MILK Co-founder Juliet Fleming to set up the new gallery space GOLDTAPPED at the Newbridge Project, iouae envisages its future as a digital artist-led space.
In a fast-paced and ever shifting sector, artist-led spaces can come and go. But each new generation of artists brings fresh ideas and a passion to create their own initiatives. Through innovation and collective unity, an increasingly diverse and dynamic ecology of spaces is helping to drive forward an artist-led culture in the North East. It nurtures vibrant art communities, establishes collaborative networks, provides alternative platforms, and allows artists to create their own opportunities.
No matter what shape an artist-led space takes, whether they have four walls, or just a firewall, their socio-economic value should not be underestimated. They are a cultural investment that is often overlooked, but they play an instrumental role in the vitality of the region.
1 Rebecca Nicholson Dark Horse at Navigator North’s STABLE as part of Festival of Thrift 2016, Photo: Jason Hynes
2 David Donald, à la mode, Slugtown. Photo: Matt Wilkinson
3 Athenaeum Building Sunderland. Photo: Breeze Creatives
4 Allenheads Contemporary Arts Observatory. Photo: ACA