Creating a new home for contemporary art in Leeds

Kerry Harker

Kerry Harker

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Kerry Harker is a co-director at art exhibition and project space PSL. She sounds a warning for the future of visual arts.

Looking back on when I graduated from the Fine Art degree course at the University of Leeds in the mid-nineties, I wonder whether it’s possible to compare the past and present without rose-tinted spectacles.

I struggled to build a career as an artist here. How do fine art graduates fare today? Is it feasible to stay here now? Is Leeds better or worse off in terms of its visual arts provision than it was?

Leeds has excellent studio provision and I benefitted from it in my former life as a practising artist. But now, as a curator and gallery director, I find my frustrations directed at the lack of physical venues in which Leeds-based artists can show their work. These are key not only to the perception of the city from outside but also for graduate retention.

Every year we lose them from the universities and Leeds College of Art and Design to other regional centres with a better reputation for the visual arts, and of course to London.

This is a great loss to the city and impoverishes what should be a key part of our cultural economy. These days, there’s no shortage of ‘economic impact’ reports which evidence the important role the visual arts can play. Those who sneer at contemporary art could look at the inward investment created by places such as The Hepworth Wakefield and Yorkshire Sculpture Park. For a city of its size, Leeds boasts a paltry number of visual arts spaces, especially when weighed against other comparable cities.

While the Henry Moore Institute and Leeds Art Gallery are important fixtures at one end of the scale, we lack the full range of spaces that creates a buzz around other cities, pulling in cultural tourists.

Public funding cuts have hit the visual arts in Leeds hard: we’ve lost venues such as Pavilion’s in Holbeck; Leeds Contemporary Art (Leeds Met Gallery on Woodhouse Lane is lamented) and organisations such as Culture Company.

While the funding cuts have fundamentally changed the landscape, the bad news is balanced by some good: the Northern Art Prize has raised the profile of the city, and independent venues such as PSL and Mexico Project Space have growing national reputations. But wouldn’t it be great if artists based in Leeds could feature more often on the NAP shortlist? It’s no secret that artists are leaving London and moving back to northern centres such as Sheffield; wouldn’t it be great if they were heading for Leeds too?

To achieve this we need more visibility for the visual arts and to grow the infrastructure in order to look and act like a serious player.

Leeds currently has no large-scale independent centre for contemporary art of the kind still enjoying huge popularity after ‘Tate Modern effect’, and that now exist in nearly every other Northern city. Nor do we have a regular cultural festival like those that bring visitors flooding into Glasgow, Edinburgh or Manchester. Perhaps we in the visual arts in Leeds haven’t worked together as closely as we 
could have either – we don’t yet get together to lobby effectively.

At PSL, we’re doing our bit by giving new life to the former Tetley Headquarters Building on the South Bank, working with Carlsberg UK to renovate it as a centre for contemporary art, which is due to open in 2013.

This is an imaginative reworking of a heritage building, a far cry from the multi-million pound trophy buildings we’ve seen of late. In these days of austerity, partnership is key and we’ve worked hard to secure a place in the hearts and minds of our major stakeholders including Arts Council England and Leeds City Council.

The visual arts in Leeds always seem to be on a knife-edge. I hope we can seize the potential of this moment and create something that will have lasting impact and be a fitting vehicle both for the city that we’re passionate about, and for the creative potential that we know is waiting out there.

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