Leeds-based East Street Arts has been quietly championing artists across the city for 25 years - we talk to artistic director Karen Watson

There has been a quiet revolution in the arts unfolding in Leeds over the past quarter century, led by East Street Arts.

Dyad Creative, one of the organisations participating in GUILD.

Established in 1993, the charity has subtly changed the arts landscape across the city with some inspired outside-the-box thinking and a great deal of drive and commitment. Co-founders and artistic directors Karen Watson and Jon Wakeman, both ceramicists by training, decided to set up the organisation after graduating from art school and returning to live in Leeds.

“We started to think about how we could continue our practice and earn some money,” says Watson. “We talked to lots of people and looked at what was happening in other cities and there seemed to be a lot of artist-led projects developing enabling people to do things without having to wait for the bigger institutions. Leeds - the art and soul of a city

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“Leeds wasn’t quite keeping up with that in the visual arts, although it was in other art forms, and we began to think about what we could do to make it easier for visual artists to stay in Leeds.”

Co-founder and artistic director Karen Watson.

They started out by taking some space in an old mill building. “We quickly realised that we could fill the space with studios and use the rent from artists to cover the overheads,” says Watson. They then approached potential influencers and stakeholders, spoke to the Arts Council, universities and schools. “It was a very steep learning curve,” says Watson, laughing. Undaunted they forged ahead, putting in funding applications, nurturing valuable partnerships and before long their eight studio spaces had grown to 50. They spoke to the artists and asked them whether, and how, they would like to be involved.

“Their priorities were to have professional places to work, to get more opportunities to have their work seen and to learn how to market it,” says Watson. “And we took all that on board. Listening to what artists want, and acting on that, has always been core to what we do.” Their record on that is pretty impressive. Over the course of 25 years, East Street Arts has supported over 20,000 artists to develop their careers, reinvented 500 temporary venues as art galleries and studios, created 79 permanent studio spaces, provided low-cost rehearsal space in empty office buildings for theatre companies and developed a unique pop-up Arts Hostel on Kirkgate. And that is just a small sample of what they do. In 2004 they secured their permanent home at Patrick Studios on Mabgate and continue to go from strength to strength, establishing mutually beneficial collaborations with other organisations across the arts sector. Their latest project is GUILD, launched in late 2018 to explore how cities can develop and support artists’ spaces and how artists can work with developers and communities to create a sustainable, flexible model in the longer term. They put a call out with the aim of supporting 20 artist-led organisations and were delighted by the response. “We received nearly 100 applications from all over the country and it was quite tough to whittle that down,” says Watson. “People are doing so much work and have so many great ideas, it was quite humbling.” All 20 met up for an induction weekend earlier this month and over the next three years will receive bespoke training, mentoring and support.

“It is so exciting,” says Watson. “It shows how vibrant the grassroots arts sector can be. We are quite a small team but you can have a real and lasting impact.”