Space in the City

Art is not made to fester in a studio, it is made to engage with people and the world around it. In order to engage, you need a space to exhibit. Spaces come in all forms across Leeds, ranging from the traditional ‘white cube’, to the cafe environment, and could even include the use of the street. These venues each entertain a different audience, ranging from the seasoned art viewer to the unaccustomed passerby. But how does an artist decide on the kind of space they want to exhibit in? And is the kind of space limited if you are a first time exhibitor?

First up we’ve got the ‘white cube’, essentially any space that presents art as the primary focus in a clean, plain walled environment. Permanent places like this in Leeds include the Henry Moore Institute, which provides a varied program of renown artists. Fantastic to visit, but not exactly attainable for a new artist. Look to recently opened, smaller galleries however and you will find a willingness to exhibit emerging artists as well as those more established. Leeds Gallery at Munro House and White Cloth Gallery can both be contacted by potential artists via their website, which makes these places appear accessible and forward thinking. They have evolved to be more than just galleries, some provide rooms for events and many boast a cafe or bar as part of the visiting experience. They seem to have struck a great balance, as neither part distracts from the other.

This dynamic between dining and art can be seen across the city, each with a different feel and focus to them. In Arts Cafe on Call Lane, the art comes across almost a secondary aspect, a cog in the overall workings of the space, rather than the centre of a visit. They exhibit a new artist every six weeks, picked the by the cafe, as the work has to be audience appropriate and fit in with the tone of the place. It provides a great platform for local painters, but the emphasis is definitely on the aesthetic rather than the ground breaking. It makes eating out a more cultured occasion – but you couldn’t exhibit an Emin-esque installation here. This is not the sort of space where the artist has free reign. The work is molded to fit in with the cafe, not only to hit a certain tone but also to fit within limited physical space.


(The Arts Cafe: Joe Jefford 2013)

If an artist is looking for a large space the ‘white cube’ set up is probably their best bet. No longer only a feature of prestigious galleries, it can be applied anywhere, whether it be in a vacant shop, club or office block. I think there is a certain appeal to this type of space, as the artist is able to transform it’s function from commercial or corporate, to explorative and aesthetic. Their size often means they are able to accommodate a group of artists, rather than just an individual, as seen in the likes of the cafe. These spaces are perfect for a temporary show and befitting with the growing pop-up exhibition culture.

Last spring a group of fine art students from Leeds University formed the collective ‘Seize’, so named because they wanted to seize empty spaces around Leeds. In this process it seems that persistence is key. Ned Pooler of Seize told me how “they wandered round the city looking for To Let signs, then cold-called them all”. In the end a letting agent offered them an old club space next door to the one they were enquiring about; as is often the case – things are best discovered by word of mouth. Empty clubs can prove interesting spaces to work within, providing different levels and features and most importantly, a built in bar for the opening night. The condition of the space required the group put in a hell of a lot of elbow grease cleaning and revamping it for a show standard, but hey, what’s life as a young artist without a little struggle.


(Seize exhibition space: Rod Jackson 2013)

In terms of utilising the street as a space, I think Leeds could look to a city such as Bristol, where street art has a large and respected presence. Not only home to Banksy, it has also given rise to new organisations such as See No Evil, hailed as the largest street art project in Britain. It commissioned several artists to paint large colourful designs on the derelict Nelson Street, thereby creating a vast open air gallery in the centre of the city. Bristol has helped rebrand graffiti as a valid form of art, and it would be interesting to see Leeds undertake a similarly large movement to shake up its own streets.

What if all these spaces don’t quite fit the bill? Another group of student artists and I are currently on the hunt for our own space in the city, and we wanted to find something a little different for our end of year show. At the moment we are negotiating the prison cells under Leeds Town Hall, after one of our members saw them used to stage a play last year. Unlike a ‘white cube’ it is not a neutral space, it is steeped in history so could potentially alter the tone of the art work displayed. But in all honesty I’m sure the wails of a few ghosts would only add to the appeal of an exhibition in the dark depths of the Town Hall. There are many unusual rentable spaces round Leeds, but often artists are not offered the because they are not seen as fit for exhibiting in the traditional way. But artists just need to be innovative and resourceful, if they can’t drill into the walls for hanging, then perhaps prop work up or it lay down. These spaces may be challenging but they are not impossible.


(Leeds Town Hall prison cells: Joe Jefford 2013)

Cost can be an issue when finding a space, especially as a student, where most of the time you are trying scrape together enough pennies for a pint. Cafes are often free to use, but usually charge commission for any works sold. Although places like Leeds Gallery are open to submissions, it can be an expensive to rent, so not ideal for an artist at the start of their career. There are some empty spaces in the city you can wangle for free, however many come with a hefty business renting rate. Cutting down the price is possible, ‘Seize’ applied for business rate relief through the council and were able to achieve a percentage off the original cost. Organisations such as East Street Arts are able to ease the daunting experience of finding somewhere independently, but usually require paid membership in order to access the spaces they have to offer.

Space is defined as a continuous area or expanse which is free, available, or unoccupied. Spaces are available all over Leeds and able to fit to almost any criteria, ranging from the ordinary to the downright wacky. Finding one to occupy and filling it with art can be a challenging feat, it requires research, persistence, and often a stroke of luck – that you’re ringing the right person at the right time. So contact all feeds, locate the available, and occupy the space.

Anya Stewart-Maggs



Filed under: Art & Photography