Committed to contemporary art and artists: The Tetley in Leeds
I first came across Pippa Hale when she was a curator of pop-up art spaces in Leeds and I was arts editor at The Leeds Guide. Now co-founder and development director at The Tetley Centre For Contemporary Art and Learning in Leeds, Hale recalls starting out.
“Kerry Harker [fellow co-founder of The Tetley] and I were at university together back in the early 90s and we were on a professional practice course that East Street Arts ran in 2002/03. As part of that we did Last Few Days, a pop-up shop in the Merrion Centre and Artsparkle in the Corn Exchange. We were all practising artists and it was borne out of a frustration really about the lack of exhibition opportunities in the city centre.”
There’s no doubt there’s a wealth of talent in Leeds and the rest of the region, but is there no real infrastructure for artists to work in?
“If you’re a young artist just starting out, how do you get that experience so that you can build up your portfolio and then go on to have your shows at other galleries? The best way to do it is to initiate your own project which is what we did. Then Kerry and I did Vitrine and curated a number of projects around the city centre in empty shop windows. Then we decided we’d like to do something a bit more permanent and that’s when we met Diane Howse and she curated Appearance at Whitehall Waterfront.”
Whitehall Waterfront was a vast aircraft hangar-like space close to the city centre. “So then we met with Kevin Linfoot and he agreed to let us use the space for a year for free and see how it went. So we formed Project Space Leeds (PSL) and got some Arts Council money and started doing ten-week projects on a temporary basis until we closed in 2011.”
I wondered how this compared with the early days working in small spaces? “It was hugely challenging but very exciting,” says Hale. “But the footfall down there was terrible and there was no heating so doing things like participation was limited. We had a really good following of artists and arts professionals locally and regionally. It was more of a political statement really, trying to galvanise the sector and give artists an opportunity to show.”
But all good things come to an end. “In 2008 there was the economic crash and the landscape changed. Kevin Linfoot went into voluntary administration and we knew that our tenure in the space was uncertain. They tried to evict us on several occasions so we just managed to hang on there. But also the funding landscape had changed. At Whitehall Waterfront most of our funding was either in kind from the corporate sector or it was public funding from Leeds City Council and ACE. After 2008 it became a fact that that sort of funding wasn’t going to remain and we’d have to find a way of becoming more sustainable. So we then started looking at other venues where we could perhaps generate some of our own income and have more control over our own destiny.”
Around the same time, it emerged that Arup, the professional services firm, was responsible for decommissioning the former headquarters of the world-famous Tetley Brewery.
“There were speculative conversations very early on with them and somehow that became a fully-fledged capital project with significant support from Carlsberg as well as ACE and Leeds City Council and other trusts and foundations” explains Hale. “We’d like to think we’ve kept the same rationale, we’re very committed to emerging and mid-career artists and working in partnership with established organisations wherever possible to give those artists the profile that they need.”
Since opening in November 2013, The Tetley has welcomed tens of thousands of people and become a firm favourite on the contemporary arts scene.
“And what this building has afforded us is a massive audience. We’ve had over 100,000 visitors in the first year which is great for us and the artists and the participation work as well. So we’re developing relationships with schools in South Leeds and families across Leeds and we do adult workshops as well.”
So there has been no change from the original PSL ethic? “We’re showing artists who are interesting and whose work we like and we think fits well. The first year’s programme was called A New Reality and we wanted to look at the heritage of the building and that’s something that the artists have found really interesting. This building was built in 1931, the brewery was established in 1822, but this was built to house the directors.”
As I chat with Hale, we are sat in the spacious café area which also has a top class restaurant and bar facilities. “What we wanted to create here was a cultural and social club which is centred around creativity. We’re very passionate about contemporary art and we don’t want to dumb down the type of work that we exhibit. We want to still encourage artists to be innovative and cutting-edge and at the forefront of contemporary art practice. It’s our job then to make that accessible to the broadest possible audience and to encourage people to engage with it.”
She adds:“Our position with PSL was very much borne out of the situation in Leeds and trying to make a difference here. So even though, attractive as it might be to move to Manchester, it was important that we stayed in Leeds and continue to promote Leeds. We have got some amazing cultural facilities here for both performing and visual arts and I don’t think we articulate it with a unified clear voice on a national level which is a constant frustration.”
So, what is a typical day like for the Tetley team?
“It was such a monumental effort to get the building up and running and we’re all operating outside of our comfort zone. The team group went from being five to over 40 with no in-between steps at all. We used to do things very much hand-to-mouth at PSL whereas here we have to programme a lot further in advance so we can get our marketing out there and get our fundraising together.”
Since launch nearly 18 months ago, the venue has invited audiences to explore the history and future use of the former Tetley Brewery through a series of artists’ projects, exhibitions, events, residencies and a publication.
Hale explains: “A New Reality was an opportunity to invite artists to respond to the building and its history. A lot of people who live in Leeds have a connection to Tetley so there are a lot of fond memories. All of the artists responded in different ways and this still continues.
“When Carlsberg closed the brewery down we came in and it was as if they’d all just got up and left. Alongside the office paraphernalia there was a marvellous collection of shields, flags, silverware, paintings, grandfather clocks, endless slides and photographs, pub signs etc, and it’s completely un-catalogued. This has formed the backbone for the artists’ research.”
I mention the much sought-after modernist utopian dream of artists being supported in society for their work. “Being an artist is a proper career and we’re part of the Paying Artists campaign and I don’t think artists are recognised for the work that they do and they’re certainly not remunerated properly. So it’s hugely problematic, the average artist in this country earns less than £5,000 a year. There are very few artists who are able to sustain themselves just through selling work.”
And what would you like a visitor to the Tetley to take away with them?
“The Tetley is about having a meaningful experience and having enjoyed what they’ve seen and to feel maybe it’s changed their perspective a little bit. We don’t want to be elitist, we want to be able to give people the tools that they need to enjoy the work. So we want to be welcoming and friendly and for people to be inspired by something that they’ve seen here.”
By Rich Jevons
Photos by David Lindsay
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