Do we get the culture we deserve in South Leeds?

Having been invited to write an article for South Leeds Life – with the only stipulation being that its focus had to be on South Leeds – excitement gave way to fear as I realised how deeply engrained art has become in my life.

'This Is Our House' by Kimbal Bumstead 2nd April 2011

As my initial concern subsided I realised that this obsessive manner in which I live could actually be a strength rather than a weakness.

Looking around me and analysing the scene with which I am involved, it would seem that the green shoots of an artistic spring are pushing through this winter of discontent.

Having spent several years organising an artist collective that has exhibited extensively across Leeds and into the Northwest of England my thoughts in recent times have moved closer to home.

Many of the artists who I have worked over the years are now located in other parts of the country, in some cases the world, and my own work has now reached as far as Sweden and Norway, leading me to wonder ‘what are the biggest obstacles facing artistic endeavour in Leeds?’ Recently I was struck by a recommendation made at a committee of cross party MPs, as reported in Art Monthly, which stated that:

‘The Arts Council should encourage arts organisations to build on their core audiences, but should not put pressure on them to relentlessly pursue those who are not interested in the arts.’

UNRAVEL: the longest hand painted film in Britain May 2011

Whilst the overall premise of the sentence seems sensible and in line with certain aspects of streamlining organisations for our current situation, the second part seems a little too premature. In order to come to the conclusion that some people will never be interested in the arts you first have to put art in their way.

With a distinct lack of visible arts organisations in the South Leeds area one could be forgiven for thinking that belief in the existence of art is something akin to a belief in Santa Claus.

Since April 2011 Beeston’s  BasementArtsProject has seen work by artists from Leeds, London, Liverpool, Manchester and Cheshire; we have seen solo projects, community workshops, an open exhibition, a 10k run and even a lecture from an Art Historian based at the University of Victoria in Canada.

For all of these very different events one thing has been very noticeable indeed and that is the spread of figures where visitors are concerned. With a regular ratio of 60% returning visitors (core audience, quite often part of the city’s wider art scene) to 40% new visitors (often local to Beeston) it would seem that people are not yet ready to turn away and say that they are not interested. Another noticeable factor that exists within the 40% is that many do return for other events rather than attend just once then disappear without a trace.

The work that has taken place at BasementArtsProject over the course of the last year has looked at Leeds through a national and international lens; it has seen practitioners from both the Yorkshire region and much further afield, working together in a very intimate setting towards a sustainable and self sufficient future.

In 2012 we aim to extend our remit further, creating a format through which a very literal integration of the Leeds based and international can occur. In a collaborative venture with SCI (SOUP collective inc.) based in the Northwest of England we will be taking the work of several artists to the Stockholm Independent Art Fair in February.

Attacking Gentrification, Allan Antliff Lecture July 2011

Another confirmed project for 2012, this time actually taking place at BasementArtsProject towards the end of March, will be a project by painter Philip Gurrey. Gurrey is currently working towards a Masters at Glasgow School of Art but will be conducting a two week residency here at the Basement.

Based on a series of portraits of Beeston residents, made in 2008, as a response to the negative press that Beeston was the focus of nationally during that year, Gurrey will produce new site specific work at the basement as a continuation of the original project.

With no political agenda at the outset Gurrey’s intention was to present a less biased depiction of Beeston than was being presented, at that point, to the rest of the nation. In March we will be re-presenting those original works alongside the product of his two week residency.

'Figure I' Beeston Series 2008 Oil on Canvas
Art can often seem alienating, remote and coldly intellectual to those who have never had the opportunity to become involved with it, but this is no reason to give up now just because times are hard.

To admit defeat at this point would be to throw the baby out with the bath water. In fact these are the times when art is needed most, especially in communities like South Leeds. To quote James Oppenheim’s poem of 1911 ‘Bread and Roses’:

‘Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!’

Activity is happening out here in the perimeter, BasementArtsProject are not the only arts in South Leeds, other venues such as TempleWorks and Indivisible, in LS10, are currently flying the flag for grassroots and defiantly independent art in the margins of the city of Leeds.

Beeston also has it’s own music recording studios in the form of Eiger Studios on the New Craven Gate Industrial estate at the Leeds end of Dewsbury Road whilst the adjoining warehouse has also become a music venue, Vox Warehouse, that on New Years Eve attracted major electronic dancehall musician The Bug for a night that went on until 6am.

The Hans Peter Kuhn artwork located in the Neville Street tunnel could be seen as not only a grand entrance into the city for those entering from the south but also the beginning of an artistic trail outwards . . .

. . . and out here at BasementArtsProject, well, the domestic will always figure prominently in what we do, for that there is no option, but this is a positive point, a point that will hopefully provide an introduction to artistic practice for those who were too afraid to ask.

I shall end with the words of Genesis P-Orridge, an artist and musician with Yorkshire roots, with whose philosophies I feel a certain affinity

“What E [sic] am interested in now is that point where Art meets Life and fuses, dispersing art and enhancing life.”

Beeston resident Bruce Davies who helps run BasementArtsProject, a basement of a terrace house in Beeston – possible Leeds’ smallest arts space.
4th Jan 2012