It’s not just restaurants and bars springing up in Leeds this year, we’ve also got a few new cultural gems to shout about, including Lady Beck Studios & Project Space…
It’s a duel purpose space from the people behind Assembly House that, like their Armley venture, will act as a studio for a community of artists, as well as a gallery where people can showcase their work. It’s proof that the city’s art scene is thriving, with artists looking, not just for a place to work, but for somewhere they can actively engage with the art community.
That sense of community is at the heart of what Assembly House do – in fact, it’s the reason they started out in the first place, as Director Lester Drake told us, “Assembly House started initially out of personal need more than anything. We were a group of 10 graduates, mostly from Leeds College of Art, wanting to maintain some of the support and resources that we had in University as well as stamp our own identity on the space. We all had different styles and disciplines but shared a community ethos.”
They started out in a converted mill nestled on the edge of the Leeds Liverpool Canal, which East Street Arts helped them to secure through their Temporary Spaces scheme. As you’ve probably guessed, it’s no longer temporary – they’ve got a long term lease with the landlord, giving both the organisation and the artists more stability, as well as allowing them the flexibility they needed to do what they wanted with the space.
But it was that move, to create a permanent home for their artists, that set them on the path they’re on today and eventually led to the opening of their second studio space, Lady Beck. Taking on the lease meant that they had to grow their community – and as it turned out, they weren’t the only ones who wanted to be part of it. They soon discovered that what they’d created was much bigger than they’d ever imagined.
“The need for organisations like us in Leeds is indisputable really, we have an abundance of creative talent being nurtured and developed through our universities and colleges, but very little infrastructure to support them once they graduate,” Drake explained.
“I’m not just talking from visual arts perspectives, as I think it’s probably true of many other creative disciplines in the city. We’re at a point in time where there is a rare opportunity to really push for retention of this talent, as more and more early career creatives are realising that despite London’s cultural dominance, it’s an unsustainable place to live, and that actually there’s something to be said about going to other cities and being part of a supportive community.”
Leeds is moving forward at a rapid pace, but while it’s impossible to miss the new restaurant and bar openings, they’re not the only changes taking place in the city. With our upcoming bid for European Capital of Culture 2023, the city’s creative and cultural institutions are upping the ante too, giving us new ways to experience and engage with the arts.
We’re not there yet though, and we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, if Leeds is to become the cultural hub that we all want it to be. “Leeds is currently seen as a city on the up, and I’ve certainly seen a lot change since I’ve come here, but I think we’ve still got plenty for us to catch up on and pitfalls that are in danger of being overlooked,” Drake told us. “It’s worth taking a look at Sheffield, which has an abundance of affordable studios run by a multitude of organisations: Bloc projects, S1, CADS and Yorkshire Art Space – and they have two Universities, only one of which delivers art courses.”
The opening of Lady Beck is certainly a step in the right direction though. It follows in the footsteps of another famous local art collective, Enjoy, which held the space before Assembly House. It holds a special place in the hearts of Drake and his fellow founders – they used to visit when they were students, and in many ways, it proved to them that it was possible for an art collective to have their own studio and exhibition space.
The biggest difference, from then to now, is that Assembly House have managed to take on an extra floor at Lady Beck, giving them even more space to work and showcase their art. They already have 17 artists based at Lady Beck, with space for another 13 to join their ranks. The studio side of things is incredibly versatile, offering a mix of large open plan spaces aimed at collectives and smaller spaces that would suit individuals who want to work on their own or among other artists. There’ll also be a function space, perfect for lectures, workshops, residencies and screenings, which means we have lots of exciting things to look forward to.
Like Assembly House, they’re keen to create the right dynamic at Lady Beck, a community of individuals who want to surround themselves with their fellow artists. “We feel it’s really important to think about the culture of the space,” Drake explained.
“You want artists who are going to be in and using their space, it can feel quite oppressive if you rarely see anyone when you use your space, even if it’s just bumping into them when you make a tea or hearing someone working in the background can make a space more hospitable. You also want studio holders to get on with each other and engage with the community you’re building, as well as a diversity of practices and to ensure that you’re helping those that really need it.”
One of the ways they’re helping is by making the space affordable. It’s something that’s vitally important to our artistic community – it gives them a place to grow and develop their talent, surrounded by fellow artists, but without the pressures of high rents. In a field that’s tough to break into, tricky to make money from and downright hard work every step of the way, that’s absolutely essential.
“There’s definitely a social side,” Drake told us. “I think a lot of people would have given up without that as it’s what, well for me anyway, it makes all the hard work worthwhile, and art can’t thrive without an exchange of ideas. In some ways art is a celebration of our humanity, so I think that social element is inescapable.” Places like Assembly House, and now Lady Beck, support and encourage the social side of art. And while their new studio on Mabgate may be a long way from their one in Armley, you can bet the artists will have ample opportunity to meet and socialise.
They’re in good company too. “Mabgate is obviously a fair distance from Armley so that was a practical consideration when we were deciding whether or not to go forward with Lady Beck. Ultimately, however, we decided there are actually quite a lot of benefits to having a presence in Mabgate. There’s a thriving community of independent businesses who we feel affinity for, such as Temple of Boom, No Brand, Pedallers’ Arms, Hackspace, Studio 24, LAB and East Street Arts,” Drake told us, “I’ve long said that with proper care Mabgate could be Leeds’ version of Brick Lane. As an area it’s also really close to the city centre, which is clearly a benefit when trying to get punters to exhibitions.”
Those exhibitions are coming thick and fast. It kicked off with No Frills, an intriguing exhibition from 6 no-nonsense artists spread across Leeds and London, which was organised by their newest member, Emma Hardaker, who is also one of the artists showcasing their work. That will be followed in May by a retrospective exhibition of Tessa Houghton’s work, with Leeds based Lydia Brockless and Norfolk based Sophie Giller taking the baton after that.
That’s as far as their plans go for now, but in the future, they’re going to be looking at extending their exhibitions past contemporary visual art, creating curated exhibitions of various art forms built around loose themes. It won’t just be their work either, as you can see from their upcoming exhibitions, they’re not afraid to reach out to other artists and collectives, extending their connections beyond Leeds and into the wider artistic community. It’s all part of their ethos, which is something of a paradox.
In the words of Drake, “We’re ambitious, thoughtful, self-aware, able to balance the practical with vision. We’re outspoken and challenge orthodoxies. We’re determined to advocate for our community and discipline, but not afraid to question many of its worst tendencies. We’re driven to ensure the long-term sustainability of our spaces. We’re open to connecting with communities and disciplines outside our comfort zone and learning from those experiences. Most of all we’re young, vital and full of energy, which any city that wants to be known for its culture needs.”
Assembly House, and indeed Lady Beck, are exactly what our arts scene needs, and while their exhibitions won’t be as well-known or talked about as those that take place in the city’s more famous venues, each and every one of them offers a unique glimpse into a thriving art culture that we should all be proud of.
Lady Beck, Unit 22, 64-76 Mabgate, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS9 7DZ.