Innovation And Diversity - A Trail Of Artist Run Galleries In England

By Lucinda Adam | 19 October 2006
a photograph of people in a gallery a man in the foreground peers onto a computer screen

An artist works on a nocturnal gallery project at Phoenix Gallery Brighton. © Luke Scott

Lucinda Adam takes a look at artist-run spaces in England to give just a taster of the creative, inspired and self-starting arts scenes that have taken hold in our towns and cities.

When you visit Britain’s cities, do you always go to the same well-known art galleries where familiar works by celebrated artists are on permanent display? While these established galleries demand a visit, you may be unwittingly missing out on some of the most innovative, diverse and stimulating art exhibitions around today.

Many of them get the help of grants from the Arts Council England, but Britain’s dynamic young artists are increasingly going it alone to make opportunities to create and show their work. The phenomenon of artist-led projects has spread across the country, with groups of artists collaborating in some unlikely locations to share affordable studios and exhibition space.

This 24 Hour Museum trail is designed to introduce you a ‘free-spirited’ art experience that you might not have known about or considered visiting before. The trail highlights projects where artists working as a collective are challenged to produce ambitious and experimental works outside the traditional confines of the gallery scene.

Remember, no attempt is made to disguise the workshop side of these spaces, so don’t be surprised to see art materials or the odd bit of unfinished work lying around, and don’t expect a ticket desk or uniformed staff. You might even encounter neglected building maintenance if artists have been too busy preparing for exhibitions.

a photograph of a a victorian school building now home to a gallery

Beaconsfield artist collective occupies a former school in Lambeth. © Beaconsfield Artists Collective

The next time you’re in London and the queues for the National Gallery and the Tate Modern are too long, why not visit Cubitt Artists. This artist-led gallery recently relocated to Islington and prides itself on enlivening London’s cultural communities.

Upholding the freedom and diversity of the artist-run space to promote developments in visual culture, the gallery of curated work has one of the busiest and varied exhibition programmes around, and even includes a licensed bar.

Since 1995, Beaconsfield artist collective has occupied a former school in Lambeth. The artists who founded it sought to create a niche organisation that placed itself between art institutions and commercial galleries, but avoided the ‘alternative’ movement.

The result is what the members describe as a holistic space, complete with a fair trade café. The gallery also has a track record for innovative collaboration and grass-roots events.

photo of a gallery space with an artificial garden installation in it

The gallery space at Phoenix arts Brighton is home to an ever changing gallery programme. © Phoenix Arts

But artist-led projects are by no means limited to the capital – the phenomenon is nation-wide. Best of all, entrance is almost always free, a feature which itself adds to the relaxed and welcoming nature of these spaces.

Phoenix Arts Association in Brighton is the largest artist-led organisation in the south east. Established in 1991, the gallery is still managed by the team of founders, with members occupying the 100 studios required to contribute to daily tasks of invigilating and cleaning. The gallery holds six shows per year, all with ‘Meet the Artist’ events, as well as a lively programme of workshops and an open studio weekend in October.

Similarly in Bristol, ROOM, near the docks in the centre of the city, offers a unique experience combining art and architecture as the building constantly changes shape, inviting artists and visitors alike to engage with the space in new ways. Art, photography, film and performance exhibitions are all possible here, including in the outside courtyard.

In the heart of Broadmead, LOT artist collective has turned the old Poundstretcher retail building into a vast arena with fabulous natural lighting for art exhibitions and events in an informal setting.

Perhaps one of the most successful examples of an artist run space can be found in Bristol at Spike Island. Already a significant international centre that combines an exhibition space for the contemporary visual arts with an excellent complex of 70 studios as well as project space for the making and showing of ambitious new work.

Located in the Cumberland Basin at the edge of Bristol’s Harbourside, Spike Island has managed to become a considerable international resource for the contemporary visual arts, and a vital new location within the city of Bristol.

a gallery space with posters pasted onto the windows

LOT - just part of the thriving artist run gallery and studio scene in Bristol. © LOT

As you might expect from a city hosting East International, one of the UK’s most adventurous open submission art exhibitions, Norwich has a growing arts organisation scene.

As an alternative to Norwich Castle Gallery or the Sainsbury Centre, Outpost Gallery runs an innovative programme of 12 exhibitions a year, with one half dedicated to work submitted by members and the other half for international artists touring or on an exchange.

The Warehouse in nearby Lowestoft is an artist-run project with studios open to visits as well as a gallery, art shop and art courses for the public. You can find them at 49/53 Arnold Street, Lowestoft, Suffolk, NR32 1PU.

Some newer artist groups have yet to secure permanent premises, and exhibit their work by hiring venues around their local area.

in Leicester is an example of an artist group who haven’t let a lack of premises hold them back. With no fixed address, they are more of a network of local artists who collaborate to show their work in an around the city in one-off events. DOT concentrates on challenging contemporary visual art, which aims to incite critical debate with evocative imagery and wording.

The newest addition to Nottingham’s galleries is MOOT, an artist organisation that has already been welcomed as a significant development to the Midlands art scene. Based in Sneinton at the Stand Assembly studios, this space was recently refurbished and relaunched with a new vigour to broaden their international links.

Throughout April 2006, Moot was a host venue for Sideshow, an artist-led initiative with a regional focus, developed to coincide with the British Art Show 6.

As you would expect from the UK’s second city, Birmingham boasts an entire network of active artists. Birmingham Artists has grown considerably over the past 17 years.

Today they can be found in the prestigious Mailbox area of Birmingham, where there is constant demand for more studio space. Formed by an amalgamation of several collectives, Birmingham Artists holds workshops, exhibitions, talks and international artist exchanges to form a lively event programme with diverse influences.

a photograph of a gallery space with an art installation in it

Jump Ship Rat in Liverpool boasts a large and flexible gallery space. © Jump Ship Rat

Liverpool is a city gearing itself up to City of Culture in 2008 and, with its successful biennial, the city has garnered a growing reputation for the arts. Hidden away in the somewhat derelict warehouses of Liverpool’s Ropewalks area the members of are busy raising the profile of one of the city's newest artist-led projects.

Calling itself a ‘meta-conceptual gallery’, it has the feel of an open art college, with one large space doubling as shared studio and exhibition hall. The programme here deliberately lacks structure, emphasises experimental and ambitious installations and has an uncoordinated atmosphere of independent artists sharing one gallery.

Politically-engaged art can be found in Liverpool at the Jump Ship Rat Gallery. This artist organisation is run according to their manifesto that art is ‘a complete environment to be experienced’. With an intention to ‘reinvent’ art, the exhibitions here challenge concepts of consumerism, commercialism and tradition, not only in the subject of the work, but in the unconventional way it is displayed within the space.

a photograph of a two tiered gallery space with white walls

Castlefield Gallery - one of the UK's artist-led success stories. © Castlefield Gallery

For the artists at Manchester’s Apartment project, size doesn’t matter. Their studio and exhibition space is housed in a one-bedroom council flat in a city-centre sixties tower block, a novelty that has attracted a number of Hungarian artists to exhibit there.

The space is still the home of one of the co-founders, whose personal belongings compliment the artwork that aims to engage with the issues surrounding the location.

Boasting a little more space, the Castlefield Gallery in Manchester is hailed as one of the UK’s artist-led success stories. The purpose-built premises have become an essential part of the artist community of the region by supporting and fostering links with various artists and groups.

Artist House in Leeds is an art project by two artists to create and show their own expansive contemporary artworks. By relating art to other realms of society such as business, education and popular culture they aim to make more relevant and engaging works.

Subjects they have covered include a Sex and the City exhibition where they entirely recreated Carrie Bradshaw’s apartment.

a photograph of a group of young men and women

Let's disco! Discogroup based in Newcastle. © Discogroup

Newcastle Gateshead’s Baltic is one of the most adventurous contemporary art spaces in the UK, so again local artists should be inspired to create and show their own contemporary work.

The Discogroup started in Newcastle in 2000 and today has members in London, Derby and Norwich. The art produced here is intended to connect with the everyday, and to avoid self-indulgence at all costs. Eschewing establishment acceptance, the work here is meant to make the visitor question modern lifestyle.

If you have an hour or two to spare, you might like to check out their website where you can find the group’s manifesto of intent.

Not to be outdone, nearby in Gateshead, the Workplace Gallery is a project run by two artists in an ex-retail outlet which has achieved international success with recent shows in New York.

The Waygood Gallery in central Newcastle occupies the first floor of the Wards Building, a Grade II listed site. This project has grown in the past ten years from a handful of founding members to a large organisation that houses a thriving community of artists and has links with many other groups across Europe.

a photograph of the exterior of a gallery building with the words room hanging above the door

ROOM - another of Bristol's artist-run spaces. © ROOM

Before visiting any artist-run initiative, it’s worth checking opening times. With artists running the projects, they need time to work too, so most galleries are only open to the public part of the week.

The main thing to remember about artist collective galleries is don’t expect immaculate entrance halls and rooms of people quietly regarding carefully lit paintings. A visit to an art project is a much more casual experience, and therein lies their charm.

To really explore the diversity and complexity of artists' practice, and to discover an inspiring critical space to research, analyse and debate contexts for practice now and in the future, see The Artists Newsletter website.

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