Harrogate artist's role in making New Light biggest in North

It's easy to assume our district attracts thousands of visitors each year because it looks good.

The New Light team: Left to Right: Valeria Sykes, New Light patron;  Felicity Cunliffe-Lister; Emerson Mayes, New Light director; Julia Lawson-Tancred, Elizabeth Simmonds and  Annette Petchey. (Picture by Sam Toolsie)
The New Light team: Left to Right: Valeria Sykes, New Light patron; Felicity Cunliffe-Lister; Emerson Mayes, New Light director; Julia Lawson-Tancred, Elizabeth Simmonds and Annette Petchey. (Picture by Sam Toolsie)

But our towns and villages are more than a period film set, they’re full of life, providing an additional platform for the vital tourist trade.

Many of the district’s events and festivals punch above their weight, putting us in the national spotlight.

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The best example is probably Harrogate International Festivals which celebrates its 50th anniversary this summer but there many others arts events worthy of a mention.

One of the other many examples is more of a newcomer.

In five short years, New Light has become the country’s largest biennial open prize dedicated to contemporary art from the north.

This art charity may be regional in scope but its North Yorkshire credentials are strong.

Its founder and chief executive Annette Petchey is from Ripon, while its main patron Valeria Sykes, was married for 44 years to philanthropic Yorkshire tycoon Paul Sykes, the man credited with bank-rolling the rise of Nigel Farage and UKIP.

Meanwhile, New Light’s director is Harrogate’s Emerson Mayes.

An artist of some renown himself, this born and bred Harrogate man has been acclaimed for his paintings of the wildlife and scenery of the Dales ever since he graduated in graphic arts in 1994.

After mentoring a New Light prize winner in 2011, he became a prominent member of the team almost by stealth.

The reason was simple, he says. He understands how vital prizes and open exhibitions are to every artist searching for an audience.

Emerson said: “It can be quite a lonely road at times being an artist no matter what stage of your career you’re at.

“Just being recognised by someone else for what you’re doing gives a real lift.”

Emerson, who went to Starbeck Primary School and St Aidan’s High School, knows that feeling well.

It was winning a prize as a young artist that kick-started his own artistic career.

Emerson said: “I’d just graduated and I was elated when I won. I got a substantial cash prize which meant I didn’t need to find a job, I could concentrate on my art.

“It also meant that Andrew Stewart, who was working at the Mercer Art Gallery at that point, noticed me and kindly offered me a show there. It was a great springboard for my future career.”

New Light’s glow may shine well beyond its North Yorkshire base but it remains tiny, in terms of organisation, at least.

It only has two paid staff and, financially, relies on the support of individual donors such as the Zillah Bell Gallery in Thirsk, which sponsors a printmakers prize; Swinton Park, which awards the Swinton Foundation Prize, and Valeria Sykes who sponsors the eponymous Valeria Sykes Award.

The latter prize comes complete with a hefty £10,000 cash prize from the former wife of Paul Sykes.

Valeria has backed New Light from the very start, a sign of her own deep commitment to art.

Valeria said: “Being a part of New Light is a rewarding way of realising my long-held dream of creating a centre of excellence for art in the region.”

A self-taught artist herself, she views art as an important means of enriching the lives of everyone.

That ethos dovetails neatly with the mission of New Light founder and chief executive Annette Petchey and fellow board members Jonathan Warner-Reed and Robert Brodie who are keen to recognise the skills of emerging artists in the north at a national level.

It’s why New Light’s prize exhibition travels each time to London.

Annette Petchey said: “When I moved from London to North Yorkshire in 2007 and I was astounded by the breadth of talent and the price of art compared to equivalent work in London.

“Work was selling for a quarter or even a fifth of what I had been paying in the south. I spoke to various artists and began to understand some of the challenges they face.

“’We are a small charity that is going from strength to strength. We award some of the biggest prizes in the region, but more than that, we provide a showcase for the best pictures being produced by Northern artists.”

Perhaps the ultimate arts double act, Emerson said although his CV was far from similar to Annette’s, the end result had turned out to be the perfect combination in the harsher economic climate buffeting the arts world currently.

Emerson said: “I’m totally from an arts background while Annette is totally from a corporate business background. But it seemed to work well from the first moment I joined the committee.

“We come from opposite directions but you need both to organise an arts charity successfully these days.”

This year’s New Light Prize Exhibition was launched at the Bowes Museum in County Durham before moving onto the Mercer Gallery in Harrogate.

Featuring a total of 84 works by 61 different northern artists, it will transfer to the Panter and Hall Gallery in London this June.

It’s been the most successful to date so far with not only the highest standard so far but a record number of entries.

The growing success of New Light is also the result of a major gamble - a change in the rules.

To be eligible for entry, an artist has to have been born or be currently living in the North of England or have studied at degree or postgraduate level in the North.

But last year it scrapped the rule that an ‘emerging artist’ had to be aged under 35.

Emerson said: “This is the first show we opened to all ages. You can be 50-years-old and still ‘emerging’ or you can be 29-years-old and already be ‘successful’.

“Changing the rules was a big decision to make but we got so many more entries. We were in the thousands this time rather than the hundreds and the quality was superb.”

As for the future, New Light is not resting on its laurels.

It’s about to launch the New Light Collection; a collection of work by some of the best northern artists working today, which will be available to public and community spaces (for free) as well as businesses for a small donation.

And it’s set to launch a new ‘Friends Scheme’ for supporters.