New galleries, emerging artists and fresh bread: exploring the Nottingham art scene

By Mark Sheerin | 17 February 2014

Something is happening in the East Midlands, as a city of 300,000 is home to three thriving studio spaces and two high quality public galleries.

Primary Studios is filled with inspiring, eclectic spaces© the author
In 1843 the foundations were laid for one of the most vibrant art scenes in the UK. The setting is Nottingham, home to the country's second oldest art school. And since its foundation in the 19th century, Trent University has surely never been so vital, bringing on students with a wide streak of daring and enterprise.

As a result, one cannot think of a comparable city with more opportunities for emerging artists. Three high-profile studio complexes and two new white cube galleries serve a population of just over 300,000. And much of this provision is situated in, or close to, areas of inner city.

Hyson Green is onesuch area: home to the largest population of ethnic minorities and also one of the city’s two more recently opened public spaces, New Art Exchange. “Our big responsibility is towards local artists living here,” says Roshni Belakavadi, the Creative Programme Producer.

New Art Exchange drums up trade with a glass-walled cafe© the author
We are sat in a lively café space which welcomes locals in from the street. In a split level gallery, NAE is showing intimate studies of a champion boxer by Punjabi artist Max Kandhola. “We have a boxing club next door, who we are working with,” says Belakavadi.

The remit of NAE is to explore diversity. But as their producer tells me, diversity is not what it used to be. The gallery aims to explore “new perspectives” in that term. They look for “artists who present a new perspective on what their culture is about.”

While NAE looks to show diverse artists all year round, they also offer active support to locals on their way to reaching that level. Belakavadi tells me about the gallery’s ExperiMentor scheme, yet another argument for artists to stay put in Nottringham.

ExperiMentor a chance for artists to “try out something they've not done before” throughout which the gallery provides mentoring, networking opportunities and profiling. And this is in addition to the workshops and learning opportunities which are also geared towards local talent.

Max Kandhola offers a fresh perspective on boxing at NAE
All of which helps the city remain “very conducive for artists”, according to Belakavadi: “People stay on within the city because it’s big enough for you to be engaged with something all the time. There’s enough happening.” But at the same time, she offers, “you’re not completely awed by a big city like London”.

Across town in Lenton, Michelle Bowen, gives me a tour of another thriving magnet for local artists: Primary. This studio complex gets its name from a former school which used the building and it still has a quaintly institutional feel.

Development Director Bowen tells me that this studio complex has been more than ten years in the making and harks back to a time when "there were lots of artists but no studio spaces". Which is hard to believe, and inspiring, when you look around Nottingham today.

Primary opened its doors in March 2012, at which point Bowen was employed to develop the brand, help select artists, bring them in, get them settled and “get the whole thing up and running.” She tells me they’ve enjoyed favourable leasing terms and support from the council, who must also get credit for the city's vibrant scene.

The two-year-old studio set up already feels well established and the artists have made themselves at home, moving in plentiful books, art works and equipment. What they also benefit from is an on-site bakery complete with pizza oven which, fortunately for me, sees some Friday lunchtime usage.

Bowen tells me that phase two of the Primary mission is to raise money to buy the premises. She has plans to convert a janitor’s house into a residency space, to convert more of the building to studios, and even furnish the centre with a café and a library.

Primary serves up artisanal pizza to hungry artists© the author
“I think that the artist-led sector, the visual arts-led sector, has developed very significantly over the last ten years,” the Primary Director confirms. “There's been an investment from the Arts Council for capital builds like [Nottingham] Contemporary, like New Art Exchange.”

She is also the first to tell me that: “Trent have obviously played their role.” And, indeed, my next meeting is with ex-NTU alumni, Annaliese Krueger at One Thoresby Street.

“My friends call it mini-London,” says Krueger when I ask her about the art scene in her hometown. “I think due to the price and the ability of being able to set up studios,” she reports, telling me that tutors at her college inspired her and her coursemates to go out and exhibit.

“We were always encouraged to set up our own exhibitions in the same way that probably London students would be forced out into the world,” she tells me when I arrive at the city centre visual art hub. Krueger invigilates at on-site gallery Trade where video work by Rachel Maclean could be found.

Artists' wares at One Thoresby Street© the author
So it can seem that the secret of Nottingham’s success appears to be the current ethos at its venerable art school. “We always had to do a group project every year,” says Krueger. “One time it was a zine, another time an exhibition. But it really forces you to get together and prepare you for leaving.”

The vibrant art scene can seem a virtuous circle. “The nature of the studio is everyone sticks together so you can always just go and chat to someone who's got more experience than you,” says Krueger, who is also enthusiastic about her artist-led gallery’s programme.

Her colleague Prior, whose connection to the building is through so-called artist 'atelier' Death of a Mauve Bat, says: “If there was another city of a similar size to Nottingham, it may have one studio space or something like that, but Nottingham has Primary, here and Backlit.” Time prevents me visiting the third, equally exciting space.

“Then there's also other ones as well,” he adds, with perhaps more to come. Like everyone I’ve met, Prior is excited about this infrastructure which would be the pride of a city two or three times its size.

After all, when you have enough enterprising artists anything is possible. Art has become an industry in Nottingham. Could it be a homegrown Berlin? It is, at the very least, the East Midland’s answer to Peckham.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

You might also like:

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Whitechapel, Vyner Street, Hoxton, Shoreditch? Exploring London's East End art scene

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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