How Leeds church has become centre for arts with a difference
As soon as you walk into Left Bank Leeds, you feel a warm, welcoming atmosphere and there is an understated, but unmistakable, creative buzz. The community arts space in Burley Park, housed in a beautiful Grade II*-listed former church building has a growing reputation as a social and cultural hub for the local area and beyond.
Director Sue Jennings and her team have been working hard to make it the kind of place where people are happy to spend some time, whether that’s just popping in for a coffee and a chat with a friend in the cafe-bar area, using the space as an alternative remote work or study place, sitting reading a book in a quiet corner or taking part in one of the many – and ever-growing – activities and events on offer.
The venue hosts art exhibitions, music, theatre, comedy nights, poetry and spoken word events and it also runs a number of creative workshops which range from lino printing and life drawing to creating climate futures and breakdancing. It recently housed a large-scale art installation – Monster by Giles Walker – featuring monumental animatronic sculptures that require the kind of vast areas of space that are available at Left Bank Leeds. The building, which ceased functioning as a church in the mid-1990s, was purchased in 2002 by a charity, now known as Left Bank Charitable Trust, in order to retain it for community use. In 2015 Left Bank Leeds CIC (Community Interest Company) was launched with the aim of bringing to life the charity’s vision for the space.
“The charity is really passionate about the building and some of the current trustees have been involved since it started,” says Jennings. “My role is to oversee looking after the building but also to run the non-profit Left Bank Leeds CIC. I came in December 2019 after the previous director left to go travelling and it was a good time for the charity to really develop Left Bank Leeds – it had so much potential but it wasn’t open very often. It was, and still is, a very popular wedding venue but it wasn’t open every day and a lot of local people didn’t really know about it. We were all very keen to develop its potential as a creative centre. Hyde Park, Burley Park and Woodhouse are all full of so many creative people, young people and students, so there was an opportunity. The thread that runs through everything we do is creativity and making that accessible to everyone.”
Jennings, who has a background in community development, spent the first few months of her tenure consulting with colleagues on how to develop the organisation in the longer term and starting to make some changes. Those initial steps were then abruptly halted in March 2020 by the Covid-19 pandemic, but undeterred the team found a way of making things happen and being useful. During the first lockdown, they worked with local charities helping to put together care packages for homeless people on a weekly basis.
“I think it was when that happened that we realised Left Bank could be a really safe place for people to do charitable work,” adds Jennings. “A lot of great things happened during that first lockdown. Although it was worrying and frightening, there was also this chance to be more creative, lots of people started to do painting, sewing and writing. Because people had all that time at home, they were exploring their creative sides. And then as we were starting to come out of lockdown, we realised that people would need a place to go to reconnect with each other. So, we thought ‘let’s open every day and just see what happens…’”
They bought a second-hand coffee machine, started doing food (“we became the toastie capital of Leeds”) and threw open the doors. “Everything has evolved from that moment,” says Jennings. “People wanted a space to rehearse or to film or to try out a new workshop – and some of those ideas have turned into regular events. Everything that happens here tends to grow out of people feeling inspired and asking if they can do something. It is not being built on my personal agenda – it comes out of what the community wants to do. It’s a really vibrant creative space.”
Artist and illustrator Megan Dobbyn has been running lino print workshops and art activities for children during the school holidays for the past two years. She first got involved at Left Bank Leeds by painting benches in the outdoor space and murals on the interior walls. “I approached Sue about doing a children’s workshop and she took a chance on me and gave me my first proper paid opportunity,” she says. “As a physical space, Left Bank Leeds is amazing and it has become really valuable to the local area. It feels very community-led and focused, which is so important.”
The weekly breakdancing sessions are run by Phil Tang, of Hello HipHop, who have been collaborating with Left Bank Leeds since the summer of 2020. “We work with schools and community projects teaching children about hip hop culture which includes dance, literature, music, rapping, DJing and street art – creativity is so vital for children’s mental health and wellbeing. We have had a lot of really great feedback and Sue and her team are all forward-thinking, positive people,” says Tang.
The event that perhaps best exemplifies the spirit of Left Bank Leeds is the weekly Creative Takeover which takes place every Wednesday evening with several meetings and workshops all happening at once. “Everyone gets to know each other and is interested in what each other is doing,” says Jennings. “You will see young dancers talking to ladies who are crocheting – it is a lovely atmosphere. It brings together people of all different ages and backgrounds and it reflects the diversity of the neighbourhood.”
There is also a monthly night market showcasing local independent artists, makers and producers, selling everything from artworks to street food. Jennings says they are also receiving an increasing number of requests to use the building as a filming location.
“I think what the last 18 months have done is given us the opportunity to genuinely respond to the community’s needs, passions and inspirations,” she adds. “Long term, we just want to make sure that everything we do is in sync with what the community wants – and we want to uplift as many people as we can and help them achieve something. We are happy to talk to people about creative projects and develop our partnerships – if people are inspired and have good ideas, our door is always open.”
Left Bank Leeds, Cardigan Road, Burley Park. Leftbankleeds.org.uk