South Square: The community and arts space in Bradford celebrating 40 years since its launch

As the South Square Centre marks 40 years as a community and arts space, Laura Reid finds out more about its history and development from some of those who hold it dear.

Allan Brack was there at the start, one of a team of 30 people who came together to turn a courtyard of derelict Grade II-Listed workers’ cottages into a now-thriving community and arts centre.

South Square has come a long way since its foundations in 1982, now home to ten studio spaces for artists, as well as a gallery, community spaces, archive, fine art framers, bar and a cafe.

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But its ethos remains the same, providing community events and a platform and opportunities to new artists and curators. Decades later, Allan is back, exhibiting work at the centre he helped to create in Thornton, Bradford, as part of celebrations to mark its 40th anniversary.

The South Square at 40 exhibition.The South Square at 40 exhibition.
The South Square at 40 exhibition.

“South Square gave me that continuity from art college into professional life,” he reflects. “South Square was always a home and it’s so nice to go back there now and see such wonderful people and what they’re doing with the space.”

Allan is far from the only one who holds South Square dear. When programme manager Alice Withers and coordinator Chloe Moreton invited artists who have exhibited at the centre across its history to put forward work for its largest salon show to date, they were inundated with responses.

The retrospective exhibition they have curated for South Square’s 40th year features more than 100 artworks from four decades and takes place across four of the centre’s galleries and community spaces. The work is diverse, ranging from paintings to sculpture to audiovisual pieces, print work and ceramics.

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“Because South Square is a grassroots arts gallery, people are very fond of it,” Chloe says. “It’s where a lot of artists started out and they really care for the place. The response we’ve had back from artists has been breathtaking.”

Allan Brack in the early days of South SquareAllan Brack in the early days of South Square
Allan Brack in the early days of South Square

Turning back the clock to 1982, what is now South Square was a collection of workers’ cottages, dating back to the 1830s. The site was in a state of dereliction and working with Bradford Council and the Manpower Services Commission (a national body set up in 1974 to coordinate vocational training), the Thornton and Allerton Community Association pioneered its restoration. They were helped by 30 unemployed people as well as graduates from Bradford College.

Allan worked as building labourer on site, going on to become a public relations officer for South Square, all the while a member of an arts group in the community, after graduating from Bradford’s School of Art.

“There was about 20 graduates in the area and we all lived in small scale accommodation in the village,” he says. “Having come from art college, getting somewhere with enough space to work was paramount. A lot of people were in one-up, one-down cottages.”

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South Square Gallery opened in 1982, three years ahead of the centre’s official opening in the spring of 1985. With artist Doug Binder, Allan coordinated the gallery programme for the first four years, alongside fellow art graduates. The very first exhibition was a solo show by Frank Johnson, a skilled life painting tutor, who had taught David Hockney, Doug and later, Allan.

In its early years, the centre held a number of large themed community events, bringing people together to create props and decorations. On one occasion, the centre was transformed into the Titanic, with a walk-through iceberg in the building’s courtyard. Another year, it was given a Parisian vibe, with an Eiffel Tower constructed in its grounds.

Today, the centre hosts exhibitions, classes, workshops and events, offering opportunities to emerging artists as well as traineeships and internships for budding curators and arts industry professionals. Alice is among those who started at South Square on a traineeship, working in marketing, events and social media, and now curating. Meanwhile, many artists who showed or were involved in South Square in its early years gained notoriety in the region and their work is part of the Dean Clough collection where Doug holds a studio and is Artist in Residence.

“South Square is a place which supports emerging artists,” Alice says. “We’re passionate about giving people a space to try out new things and experiment at the beginning of their artistic career and I think that’s one of the reasons South Square is a place people feel quite strongly about. Even if people have moved away, they come back and keep in touch because they have warm feelings about the place.”

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Chloe agrees. “Because it’s a grassroots arts centre, a lot of people come to us who have never had a show before,” she says. “We help people put on a show who have perhaps never done it or don’t have the confidence to. We’re there at the beginning and to watch people’s career progress and flourish and know we’ve been a part of that is brilliant. That’s what the ethos has always been.”

Whilst its values largely remain the same, the centre has had somewhat of a makeover in recent times. South Square reopened in May last year after a nearly £1m project, funded largely by the National Heritage Lottery Fund, which involved electrical work, roof renovations, heating installation and repairs to windows.

The project is combined with a three-year heritage scheme, a programme of community events focused around the history of South Square, the broader story of Thornton and the village being the birthplace of the Bronte sisters.

“The works have made such a big difference,” Alice says. “We’re seeing a massive amount of footfall. People are being able to use the centre more, and it’s a more pleasant place to be.

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“It’s adding to Thornton as being a bit of a destination now as well. It’s the birthplace of the Brontes, there’s Thornton viaduct and lots of beautiful countryside. People will come and go to our vegetarian cafe, go for a walk, see the Bronte birthplace. People can package it all into a day out.”

For Allan, who went on to organise Bradford Festival events in the city for many years, before moving to Cornwall and focusing on painting, seeing South Square thriving today fills him with warmth. “What really strikes me is 40 years on, South Square has really come of age. The early renovation project was small and cumbersome and not brilliantly funded. It got there and the building survived 40 years but now with the Heritage Lottery funding it’s looking superb.

“It’s fantastic actually as somebody who was there on the first day when we broke the doors down to start the renovation to look at the space now. I think South Square is providing a central attraction in the village. It’s the place to go. I also think it’s a pivotal player and a model in the future regeneration, conservation, cultural and creative development of the area.

“And I think that South Square is really destined to play a big part, not just to local residents but to the city as a whole, as Bradford looks forward to UK City of Culture in 2025.”

The 40 years South Square retrospective exhibition is free and continues throughout August and September.