Celebrating a vision that has transformed city’s art scene

Karen Watson and Jon Wakeman
Karen Watson and Jon Wakeman
Have your say

An arts initiative celebrates its 20th anniversary next year, but the party begins this weekend. Arts correspondent Nick Ahad reports.

In 1983 two artists with a vision took over a mill in Leeds. Frustrated at the lack of opportunity for visual artists in 
the city, they decided to take matters into their own hands and began to stage exhibitions at East Street Mills.

Fast forward a couple of decades and the pair are now at the helm of East Street Arts, a collective that receives almost £200,000 per year of public funding from the Arts Council to promote visual arts and support the work of artists across the city.

“We are quite tired,” jokes Karen Watson, who along with Jon Wakeman, set out 20 years ago with the simple aim of creating new opportunities for artists.

The anniversary celebrations will run throughout next year, but they begin this weekend with a two-day art event across the city.

Watson says: “It will be a weekend full of grassroots artist activity across Leeds. People will be able to visit more than 20 exhibitions at venues that they might not have been to before.”

While Leeds may boast a number of influential galleries, it doesn’t have enough to host 20 new exhibitions over one weekend.

So instead, East Street Arts is doing much as it has since it first opened. It has secured a number of alternative spaces which for a couple of days will be turned into temporary galleries. It’s what Watson refers to as a “grassroots” approach and for some of the venues on the East Street Mills trail it will bring previously redundant buildings back into use.

“We’ve taken over buildings across the city to stage exhibitions,” says Wakeman. “We are actually working across Yorkshire and nationally, putting art into empty buildings and exhibitions into places that usually function as something else.”

This weekend’s festival of art will feature three different exhibitions being staged in buildings in the Mabgate and Sheepscar areas of Leeds, a building on Wellington Street and the home of East Street Arts, Patrick Studios.

Come Find Us will feature 
13 venues, including existing gallery spaces, workshops, 
delis and bars around the edge 
of the city.

As part of the strand, Leeds Hackspace, a community workshop, a bike repair shop Pedaller’s Arms and popular pub The Reliance will host a series of exhibitions.

East Street Arts will play its own part in the weekend by hosting an open studios event at Patrick Studios, when the public will be invited into the building to see the artists at work.

The final piece of the jigsaw is Inhospitable, a pop-up art exhibition in an old Georgian townhouse on Wellington Street, near Leeds train station.

With a little help from Watson and Wakeman, the building, currently empty office space, has been taken over by curator Bruce Davis, who is showing the work of 25 artists from across the city.

Davis says: “Having a space like this is a great way to give some really interesting artists from around the city a space to show their work.

“The way to make a space like this work is to accept that it isn’t a gallery, but a house, so you have to treat it as such. It means there are installations in the bathroom, interesting pieces in the kitchens, it’s a really interesting space to show work in.”

The spirit with which Davis is staging his exhibition, the idea of simply getting on and doing it, is the same spirit with which Watson and Wakeman set out on their initial venture almost 20 years ago.

It is also indicative of a new wave of optimism and can-do attitude from the artists in a city in which many working in the visual arts feel they have had a rough deal for some time.

“Something has definitely happened across the city,” says Wakeman.

“It’s difficult to define exactly what it is, but suddenly the visual arts has a real grassroots movement. With collectives like Black Dog and initiatives like the Woolgather Art Prize, which recognises contemporary artists, Leeds really feels it has established itself as a place where people not only feel able to stay, but where they can actually make a living as artists.”

What Wakeman and Watson are too modest to say is that their belief in East Street Arts and in Patrick Studios – a former boxing gym they turned into purpose- built studios – has become a beacon for the visual arts in the city. Few of the initiatives enjoying the boom they talk of haven’t had some connection with them.

For details of this weekend’s events visit www.eaststreetarts.org.uk.