One of Leeds’s most important contemporary art galleries is moving to pastures new. Arts correspondent Nick Ahad meets the people behind Project Space Leeds.
Six years ago, three artists had a vision.
Five years ago, that vision became a reality.
Kerry Harker, Pippa Hale and Diane Howse were in an empty space of a new development just outside Leeds City Centre and they realised within those four walls was the answer to a question that had troubled all of them for some time.
Harker, Hale and Howse are visual artists who had been plugging away, finding spaces in Leeds to show their art and the work of others – and realised there was a woeful lack of places where artists like them could display their work.
“The last exhibition Pippa and I organised before launching PSL was Vitrine,” says Harker.
Vitrine saw Hale and Harker curate a programme of visual art which was displayed in empty shop windows around the city centre. Despite the lack of proper gallery space available to them, their determination to find a platform for visual art meant they turned to alternative spaces.
It could only ever be a stop-gap solution.
Which is why, when they discovered Whitehall Waterfront, they were elated.
The building, which would become their base, was owned by Kevin Linfoot. A ground floor unit in the building had been given to Diane Howse, wife of David Lascelles, now the Earl of Harewood. Howse, a visual artist, was staging an exhibition in the ground floor base and as soon as Harker and Hale first saw the exhibition, they knew they had found something.
“Leeds has the Henry Moore Institute and the Leeds Art Gallery, but at the time it had no independent gallery space,” says Harker.
“A city the size of Leeds needs a space, it needed something like the Arnolfini in Bristol, the Icon Gallery in Birmingham. Not having a space where artists in the early stages of their career could develop and stage work was having a seriously detrimental effect on the city’s art scene.”
Harker and Hale had graduated in Leeds and, while the pull to leave the city and travel either to London or indeed another metropolitan city with a more vibrant artist community, was strong, they resisted.
“We were very aware that after graduation there were very limited opportunities for artists in the city, but rather than leave we both wanted to stay and create something that would make it viable for artist to stay and maintain their practice.”
The space in Whitehall was perfect. As a trio, Harker, Hale and Howse approached art lover Kevin Linfoot, and he gave them the space for a much reduced rent and Leeds, finally, had an independent gallery.
The name, Project Space Leeds, was important, says Harker, because it reflected that here was not just a gallery, but a place that was dedicated to developing the artist. It wasn’t just a place to display art work.
With no funding from the Arts Council and an amount from the city council so small as to be all but insignificant, they set about turning PSL into a focal point for contemporary art and artists in the city.
Five years on, their work is not done, but at least that initial mission is now complete.
PSL has become a focus for contemporary art in Leeds – and other small independent galleries have sprung up in the city since PSL launched back in 2007.
Zoe Harker, a full time member of staff at PSL, which now receives core funding from the Arts Council, is a Leeds graduate and a number of the 300 artists who have created and displayed work at PSL over the past five years, were taught in the city.
The job, however, is far from done. Tonight the doors close on PSL, an event that is being marked with the launch of a book, Leaving Las Vegas, which charts the short but significant life of the venue. The book, and its launch at PSL tonight, is a signpost rather than a full stop. PSL is due to relocate to the old Tetley Brewery site to the south of Leeds city centre.
While the people are moving, the ethos remains the same.
“What I would like to think is that artists can come to us with a proposal, the kinds of artists that aren’t operating at a level that can see them go to Leeds Art Gallery or the Henry Moore Institute, and we will listen to their ideas,” says Harker.
“The Whitehall Waterfront building has served the purpose really well and to think that we have this in the city, when we started there was nothing, is really important and gratifying. At the same time, this isn’t really a great space and we have essentially been battling against it for a number of years.
“It was great to have the space, but we quickly became aware of the limitations – there was no access, the huge glass front meant there was a lot of light in the space, which made works on paper or video works difficult for us to display – mediums that a lot of artists work in.
“One of the big reasons we opened up PSL at all was to raise public awareness in the city of visual art, but that hasn’t really happened, the development we expected down here hasn’t really come to anything, so while the profile has been raised, we still think there’s a lot of work to do.”
All that said, with more than 20 shows and 300 artists over the period of the past five years, the brains behind PSL – Diane Howse stepped down from her role as director when her husband became Earl of Harewood last year – can take some satisfaction and what they have achieved.
PSL opened in July 2007, with an exhibition called The Mapping Project by highly respected civic architect John Thorp. He collaborated with contemporary artists Leo Fitzmaurice, Lucy Gibson and Nichola Pemberton on an exhibition which featured his project on mapping the changing dimensions of Leeds as a city and the contemporary artists’ response to his work.
This was followed in October of that year with Wildwood a hugely popular exhibition which featured drawing, sculpture, photography and taxidermy from eight artists, which explored the collision between the urban and the natural worlds – perfectly suited to the Whitehall Waterfront development, which sits next to the Leeds-Liverpool canal.
Other exhibitions followed, featuring artists from around Leeds and Yorkshire, and internationally, with a recent exhibition bringing together work by artists from Leeds Met, Finland and Sweden.
Essentially, these three women built it - and the audience came.
Highlights from PSL
The Mapping Project- 5 July- 8 September 2007: An enquiry in to the development of Leeds.
Strangely Familiar- 27 February- 10 May 2008: Photographs of Leeds from the 1960s to the present day.
195 Miles- 17 December 2008- 28 February 2009: There are 195 miles between London and Leeds. This project created a bridge between the two featuring eight artists.
Jerwood Contemporary Painters 2009- 22 July- 19 September 2009: A vibrant collection of work by 26 emerging artists.
Leaving Las Vegas is available now: www.projectspaceleeds.org.uk