The former Tetley Brewery headquarters has been transformed into a new arts venue in Leeds. Chris Bond takes a look ahead of today’s big opening.
WHEN the Tetley Brewery closed in 2011 it brought to an end 189 years of history.
Many people in Leeds mourned its demise, successive generations of families had worked there and over the decades countless more drove past the vast, sprawling site, where the neon Tetley sign became a beacon on the city’s skyline.
But although the brewery itself was demolished, the old Tetley headquarters remained intact and today this art deco building begins a new life as a contemporary art gallery following a £1.5m refurbishment. As well as hosting exhibitions and workshops, The Tetley, as it’s now called, will house several arts organisations and previously unseen brewery archives.
It’s also the new home of Project Space Leeds (PSL), the arts charity that will run the building, which hopes The Tetley will do for the arts scene in Leeds what places like Cornerhouse and the Baltic have done for Manchester and Gateshead.
The idea is to champion artists not only from Leeds but across the north of England and beyond and provide a public venue for art and learning that is open to anyone. It’s ambitious, especially at a time when arts organisations are under such financial pressure, but if it’s successful it will not only fly the flag for contemporary art, it will breathe new life into a popular city landmark.
From the inside the building is something of a revelation. The revamp has preserved many of the heritage features such as the boardroom, which will be available for hire, and the ground floor memorials commemorating former employees who fought, and in some cases died, during the two world wars.
Most impressive of all is the birdcage lift and the stone staircase that wraps around it, offering a view over a triple-height atrium, the main gallery space which is awash with light. Former directors’ offices have been turned into smaller individual galleries while the upper floors have been given over to offices and workshops that can be used by community groups and children on school visits.
Kerry Harker, co-director of PSL with Pippa Hale, says the building has been transformed since they initially visited three years ago. “When we first came here it was dark and dingy and it was a bit of a leap of the imagination to see how it would end up. But we had a feeling that it could be a good space for contemporary art,” she says.
“There was massive sensitivity around the closure of the brewery and this building is pretty much the last remaining vestige of that, apart from what’s left of the bottling sheds. It’s not a listed building so in theory it could have been demolished but thankfully Carlsberg decided to keep it.”
Arts Council England and Leeds City Council have provided some funding for the new arts centre with Carlsberg UK, which still owns the site and the building, paying for the bulk of the conversion work.
The inaugural programme, called A New Reality, runs until next spring and examines the building, its history and future through a series of exhibitions, residencies and events.
Harker says there has been a lot of interest from local people curious about what they have planned. “Even the guys doing the signage work would say things like ‘my grandad used to work here and he got a gold watch from Tetley’s when he retired’. Everyone in Leeds knows someone who has a connection to Tetley’s.”
It’s something they’re keen to tap into. “The whole heritage element is really interesting and hopefully it helps broaden our appeal to people who perhaps wouldn’t normally come to a contemporary arts space but will come here because of the Tetley link.”
In one of the rooms the giant brass letters that make up the Tetley sign, taken down during the renovation, have been carefully laid down and will eventually form part of the archive housed here.
The archive itself contains a vast array of objects including everything from old photographs and the trowel Charles F Tetley used to lay the building’s foundations in 1931, to handwritten brewing ledgers and letters from Buckingham Palace linked to beers specially brewed to mark royal occasions like the marriage of Charles and Diana.
“It’s fascinating and it covers the best part of 200 years of history which generates a lot of material that we’ve had to slowly sift through,” says Harker, speaking above the drilling and hammering as the finishing touches are applied ahead of the launch.
They’re also involved in Leeds Stories of the Great War, a project led by the University of Leeds exploring the ways in which the war affected the everyday life of people in the city.
“Women came to work at the brewery for the first time in 1916 because so many of the men had gone to war. They worked in the maltings and we’re trying to track down some of the family names so hopefully we’ll be able to commission some new work that comes out of that.”
The Tetley is perhaps more about creating links between artists and the public than it is necessarily about finished artworks. “The idea is that this place becomes an animated and social cultural hub rather than a museum because that’s not what we’re about,” she says. “The aim is that on any given day you can turn up and there’s something you can do, whether it’s drop-in activities for families, artists’ talks or curator tours.”
PSL want to make The Tetley self-sustaining in the long run and have set up a trading arm to run the commercial side of things. As well as making space available to hire for functions and events they brought in local star chef Anthony Flinn, who ran Anthony’s Restaurant Limited before its demise last summer, as a specialist adviser to the ground floor Bar & Kitchen.
Although Leeds already has a city art gallery and the Henry Moore Institute, fellow director Hale believes The Tetley offers something different.
“We’ve always thought there’s been a real absence of that independent contemporary art space that every other big city seems to have. You’ve got the Baltic in Gateshead, you’ve got the Arnolfini in Bristol and Icon in Birmingham, and it’s like ‘where’s that place in Leeds?’ So we hope The Tetley will go some way to redressing that gap.”
The success of the First Direct Arena has proved to be a catalyst for the transformation of the city’s “Northern Quarter” and council bosses hope The Tetley will help connect New Dock, where the Royal Armouries is based, and the nearby Holbeck Urban Village to the city centre.
“Three years ago when we first came and looked at it we loved the building but the risk for us was it would be a stand alone building on a closed industrial site,” says Harker. “But then Leeds City College came to the old printworks site and we’ve got Leeds College of Building coming next door and there’s so much happening in this area now and I think the idea of a ‘South Bank’ has really taken off.
“If the council’s vision rolls out as it should do then this building could be in the centre of the city park one day, so we’re really excited about being part of the regeneration of this area and seeing where it heads.”
Harker and Hale feel the new venue is as much about boosting the ongoing regeneration of the ‘South Bank’ area as it is about preserving the city’s heritage.
“One of the roles of arts organisations is to go into areas and regenerate them and I think the area will change when members of the public start walking up and down the old Hunslet Road,” says Hale. “With New Dock being relaunched in the summer, it really feels like The Tetley can be the missing piece of the jigsaw.”
For more information about events at The Tetley visit www.thetetley.org
The Tetley: a new arts space for Leeds
A New Reality is the name of The Tetley’s inaugual programme of events based loosely around the themes of ‘labour’, ‘the telling of overlooked or faded history’ and ‘the cyclical process of change’.
James Clarkson – November to February 16: In his first solo project in Leeds, Clarkson will create new work during his two month residency at The Tetley. Using objects found during the building’s renovation his show will explore the brewery’s social and industrial history and what happens to an object when its function changes.
Emma Rushton and Derek Tyman – November 29 to January 12: Fear of the Surplus is the title of the project by these two Manchester-based artists. They are inviting a variety of speakers to discuss different ideas of work. These public events will take place in a purpose-built stage within the Tetley’s Auditorium Gallery.
Simon Lewandowski and Sam Belinfante – January 24 to February 28: The Reversing Machine, devised by these two Leeds and London-based artists, is being seen for the first time in the UK. Visitors are encouraged to choose from specially commissioned records and play them in a “Palindrome Jukebox.”
Rehana Zaman – November 29 to July 2014: Bittermen is the title of a drama series that will be filmed by the artist and shown at The Tetley next summer. Based around interviews with former brewery employees it will look at issues such as class, gender and racial politics.