A few years ago, I completed my ‘city centre living rites of passage’ at a flat in Whitehall Waterfront. The perfect antidote to the usual concrete claustrophobia of city centre life, our flat overlooked the Leeds waterfront, at a gorgeous leafy section of the River Aire inhabited by ducks, swans and even the odd heron. I loved living there. It was just a ten minute walk into town, we had an amazing balcony from which to watch the river float by, and most interesting of all, there was an art gallery on the ground floor.
That gallery was called Project Space Leeds (PSL) and it was fantastic. An artist-led space dedicated to emerging contemporary artists, I visited it regularly, fuelled by the curiosity that would inevitably rise as I watched exhibitions changeover from my balcony. The programming was daring, innovative and always thought-provoking; and whether I left feeling confused, amazed, inspired or moved, one thing was certain – I always felt something after a visit to PSL. And although the nature of contemporary art meant that many exhibitions were challenging, PSL never felt pretentious, or elitist, and I Ioved it for this.
PSL had five successful years at Whitehall Waterfront, but like me, their time came to move on. But whereas I’ve just moved from a modest flat to a modest house, PSL have traded in their ground floor gallery space at Whitethall Waterfront for something considerably larger – the former HQ of Tetley Brewery. A massive operational upscale that will help to diversify its income stream and sustain its future, it’s clearly been a lot of hard work, but PSL have finally got the keys and are nearly ready to unveil their new space. The Tetley officially opens to the public on 29 November, but thanks to the Culture Vulture, a group of us nosy bloggers didn’t have to wait that long, and were invited along for a VERY exciting sneak preview this week.
I always loved the space at Whitehall Waterfront, but The Tetley is something else. It’s much older, built 70 years before Whitehall Waterfront, and the history of those 70 years has been fully embraced by PSL with the retention of many of its original features. The result is stunning, a wonderful convergence of art deco and contemporary touches that propelled us bloggers into an instagramming frenzy from the moment we walked through the revolving, wood panelled door.
The space couldn’t be more different from Whitehall Waterfront, but it really works, even without the art that will soon fill it. I love the idea of housing a contemporary art gallery in a building steeped with heritage, and by doing so, PSL have laid the foundations for a fascinating dialogue between the two.
This dialogue will be a concurrent theme throughout the exhibitions that will be curated at The Tetley, as PSL’s co-founder and co-director, Pippa Hale, told us as she showed us around. As well as the preservation of the building’s original features, the restoration process has uncovered hundreds of fascinating objects charting The Tetley’s history, from photographs and plans, to the building’s iconic gold lettering. These objects, along with the building itself, will form the basis for a series of exhibitions that will unravel the history and future use of the former Tetley Brewery headquarters. The first of these will be unveiled on the opening weekend with ‘A New Reality Part 1’, which will run until 28 February 2014.
It was inspiring to hear Pippa speak about the journey that’s brought PSL to The Tetley, and what really came across was the clarity of their vision for its future. When asked about what they were trying to make The Tetley feel like, Pippa was clear. The Tetley is all about getting “down and dirty with artists”, working and engaging with the artists and what they’re interested in. This artist-led ethos underpinned everything they achieved with PSL, and they’ve brought it straight to The Tetley – an unapologetic commitment to providing a space for cutting edge and innovative artists to show, and create, their work.
As such, The Tetley’s exhibitions will be baffling, and they will challenge visitors, but Pippa said that there’s one thing that they won’t do – alienate visitors by using ‘artspeak’. Hallelujah! I loathe artspeak, an elitist jargon that puts up a hugely unnecessary barrier to audience engagement. Pippa was clear that they wanted to make the art accessible, without compromising the integrity of their programming, and recognised the role they must play as interpreter to do this successfully. She talked about the importance of their gallery assistants in helping them achieve this, and they will be tasked with being friendly and welcoming, tackling the baffling nature of exhibitions by encouraging questions and discussions from visitors.
Pippa was also very coherent on the role they want The Tetley to play in the local community. She spoke passionately about their plans to create learning programmes with schools and community groups, focusing on the South Leeds area in particular. She told us that this wasn’t about telling people what they need to do, it was about looking at what communities need, and how they can work with them to make a genuine difference.
And if all that doesn’t whet your artistic appetite, there’s also a bar and kitchen on the ground floor. The restaurant is a gorgeous space, simply but effectively filled with tables re-purposed from original wooden pannelling from across the building. It will serve traditional Yorkshire fare with a contemporary twist, at a fair price that Pippa hopes will tempt us back again and again. Unfortunately we didn’t get the chance to sample any of their wares this time, but the menu and concept has been developed no other than Leeds’ Anthony Flinn, so I think we’ll be in safe hands.
It was a real privilege to be one of the first visitors to The Tetley, and I left feeling invigorated, excited, and incredibly proud of Leeds. In Pippa’s own words, “If want to see artists operating at forefront of contemporary art practice, The Tetley is the place to see it.”