With 170 artists and makers, Yorkshire Artspace  has been involved in delivering work for a range of highly acclaimed international artists. So why do so few people know about it? Phil Turner spent a morning with Director Georgina Kettlewell and Business Development Manager Dan Ogden to discover what they have planned to showcase this world-class facility to the Sheffield public.

Originally established by Hallam Uni graduates in 1977, Yorkshire Artspace was one of the first studio groups outside of London and is now one of the largest studio providers outside of the capital. It moved to the current purpose-built site at Persistence Works in 2000 with a sister site, Exchange Place Studios at Castlegate, housing a who’s who of local, national, and internationally-recognised artists and makers – some of whom are the best at what they do in the world.

Until recently, though, there was rarely any front-facing activity, but that’s starting to change. The venue has a number of events lined up to highlight the artists based there, and they are calling on local businesses to support them by visiting the space, hiring it for events, and commissioning bespoke artwork. Let’s hear about why the region should start to discover this huge hidden gem.

So, tell us about Yorkshire Artspace and why we should be excited about it…
Georgina: We’re THE centre of art production, certainly in this region. We’ve got 170 artists and contemporary craft makers in two city-centre buildings and just some incredible talent. A lot of it’s hidden away, so now we’ve decided it’s time to share that with the public so they can start to see all the art that’s being made here.

Can you tell me about the events you have planned?
Georgina: We’ve got Selected Space from July 12-14, which is a brilliant set of artists showcasing contemporary craft. Then we’re working with Dig Where You Stand, an archive justice project, an exhibition of visual art responding to hidden histories and the city’s archives. That’s on for a month from July through to August, supported by Peter and Paul.

In September, we’re working with Sheffield Uni’s Festival of the Mind, so we’ve got a pretty cool diary. But this is something we’ve only been able to do since the summer because we’ve got a brilliant new gallery space here at Persistence Works. It’s a huge new white cube space that used to be a private studio, so now we can really welcome the public back into the building and share with them the brilliance that goes on here. We can have selling shows here now (where the public can buy the works of art on display) and that feels like something that is missing from the city – there isn’t much of a commercial art scene here really.

Tell me about the history of the place…
Georgina: It was started by two Hallam graduates in 1977 and then over the years became more professionalised and organised. This building is a Millennium project; it was the first purpose-built art studio complex in the UK. So that meant we could provide the best studios for artists and do things like ‘hot works’ here. You can work with heat, fire, kilns, metalworking – we’ve got an incredible community of metalworkers and silversmiths here that has built up over 20 years. But the problem is, we’re too hidden away.

Why has it been a secret over the years?
Georgina: I think it’s something about the way the building has been designed that kept it a secret. I think originally they didn’t really want it to necessarily be visible; even in the way the frontage has been designed, for instance. People walked past here for years and didn’t realise it was a group of art studios… but that’s something we want to change. And let’s not forget, we haven’t had a big public-facing program over the last few years but now, developing the space as we have, really enables that to happen.

Dan: We actually have some of the best international talent around, not just regional or national. Some fellows have flown from around the world to study here with our masters. For example, a really talented young silversmith flew over from Tokyo as we house some of the best silversmiths in the world here to learn from. There are incredible public artists too, that tend not to shout about themselves, and we believe now we should celebrate them much more. The buildings are the buildings, but it’s the art that’s created here that’s really exciting.

“There are incredible public artists too and we believe now we should celebrate them much more.”

Outside of London, we have the greatest number of artists per head in the country, but a lot of the city doesn’t know that. For example, when (internationally-renowned artist) Yinka Shonibare was selected to represent the Nigeria Pavilion at the 60th edition of The Venice Art Exhibition, highlighting the stolen Benin Bronzes which were exhibited at The British Museum by recreating them in clay, every piece of the work and the sets were created here. 150 individual pieces built by 13 ceramicists overseen by one of our incredibly talented artists based here. It was photographed here, filmed here, and then packed down and shipped straight over to Venice. But we don’t talk about it, it’s a symptom of Sheffield. But it’s part of our job to celebrate what the people here do and if we don’t, eventually commissions will dry up. We can either grow or we can trim.

It feels like the city, especially the food and drink scene, is starting to be regenerated. Do you feel that?
Dan: The improving nighttime economy is fabulous but you need art and culture too. Our greatest asset here is that no one has seen us coming. All the cities are modeling themselves in the same way but we’re not. We’re doing something different and that is going to make us a city of the future. We’re not set up the way other cities are. We are very friendly, everyone knows that and we’re humble but what we really are is a city of pioneers, of makers and because of that, our future is different. You can buy some of the most incredible pieces in the world and they are actually affordable. It’s about taking on that pioneering Little Mesters vision but also taking on some of the radicalism that came from the kind of people who started the music scene in the 80s. And it’s actually very cool. Not just Sheffield cool. Just cool. We see ourselves as being part of that nighttime economy; we can offer private views, opening one or two evenings a month – we can do a different kind of art that’s very appealing.

So what else is unique to Yorkshire Artspace?
Dan: Well, as we’ve said already, we’re a centre for art production. We can take projects of a scale that nowhere else can and produce in-house here because of the way everyone collaborates. They just walk across the hall to each other’s studios, find out what they’re working on, then offer to help. So we can take projects that no other centre or art studio can take and build them entirely in-house.

We also offer workshops, tuition and commission pieces. We can help improve the value of premises with the art we create. Our public artists are that good; given the space to explore, they will create brilliant public work that will enhance the value of a development and drive people to visit, increasing the rentable value.

Georgina: I think the main thing is to recognise the talent that’s here in the city. There’s been too much going through agencies to commission something from London, when there’s a wellspring of talent here. The artists here deserve more. We keep it affordable for the artists and to do that we need to focus on talent, first and foremost, so this provision benefits people who are really serious about a career as an artist or maker. It’s about building the right ecosystem around them to help them be future-ready. Sometimes it’s about business development advice and having access to someone who can help them think through their own individual business model. And then we need to develop the income streams, whether that’s space hire, retail, commissions, and profiling the people here and the kind of work they do.

What’s the market like for art in the region?
Georgina: There are collectors here. But you know, they’ll have art buyers and those people will have their stable of artists. So it’s important we raise awareness of who is here with the gallery shows for people who are interested in emerging art and want to invest in a particular place, that could be interesting. There’s work to do. How do we open up the ground floor and make it much more public or improve the frontage to invite people in? Some of it is basic stuff.

For more information on upcoming events at The Yorkshire Artspace visit artspace.org.uk/whats-going-on.

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