A question of taste

Sophie Haydock looks at how an old brewery in Leeds has been transformed to provide a platform for leading contemporary artists and the next generation of innovators

Hero image

When the famous Tetley’s brewery was shut down in 2011, after nearly 200 years at the very heart of the city, many felt it was the end of an era. But in November, it reopened to the public, transformed into a cutting-edge contemporary art gallery. All the heritage of the site and what it meant to the people of Yorkshire has been carefully preserved and celebrated. Even the name has remained.

The Tetley’s reinvention is thanks to the artists Kerry Harker and Pippa Hale, who have a track record of founding innovative art spaces in the city. In 2006, they set up Project Space Leeds, at White Hall Waterfront. The pair admitted they’d “outgrown” that space, and were looking for a new challenge when they were shown the art deco building, which was being used as offices after the brewery closed. They are now committing to it for the long-term, and intend to be there for at least 10 years.

“We’d like to be here a lot longer. Hopefully the people of Leeds will take the gallery to their hearts,” says Harker, who added that it would have been “silly to try to enforce a different name on the building. Everyone will always know it as the Tetley.” She says it’s “wonderful to see people’s reactions” when they visit for the first time. “The building feels like it gets you in its arms the minute you walk through the door.”

The Tetley opened in November, and its first exhibition, A New Reality, looks at the legacy of the space through installation, performance and film. “We wanted to deal with Tetley’s past right from the start. We’ve invited six artists and the public into that conversation as well,” says Harker.

Harker acknowledges that there’s a lot of sensitivity in the city about the former brewery. “The building is the last remaining vestige of what Tetley’s meant for Leeds. It’s incredibly important to celebrate that. We feel like guardians of the space.”

Harker and Hale met in Leeds and were active artists for several years, before turning their attention to producing and supporting other artists. Hale is also the director of the Northern Art Prize. They noticed a gap in what Leeds could offer to artists at a mid-point in their careers.

“Places like East Street Leeds help artists with development at an early stage, and at the other end of the spectrum is the Henry Moore Institute, working with established, world-class artists at advanced stages of their careers. We felt that in between there was a real gap.”

Ultimately, Harker and Hale hope the Tetley will encourage the city’s creative talent to stick around. “Art graduates end up going to Manchester, Glasgow or London – cities with higher profiles in the art world. We want to provide a stepping stone for them to get to the next stage of their career here in Leeds.”

Harker hopes the British Art Show, coming to Leeds in October 2015, will raise the profile of the city further. “It’s very exciting to have things like that on the horizon,” she says.

When it comes to encouraging the arts as a viable career path, Harker says they are committed to working with local schools and colleges to promote creative development. “Participation is a big thing for us. We’re always looking for more partnerships. I think that as awareness of the Tetley builds, we’ll be able to do a lot more of that.”

Harker says she believes there’s lots of value in promoting the arts. “It is absolutely essential, now more than ever, to encourage it as a career path to young people. It improves confidence, concentration, life skills, and helps people become rounded confident individuals who contribute positively to society.”

Why should the people of Leeds take time to visit The Tetley? Harker admits that contemporary art can be a “hard sell” for the public, because there is a “certain amount of cynicism in the British press, and we’re always battling against that”. But even if people don’t want to visit the Tetley because of its contemporary art, hopefully they’ll “still come because of the heritage and just to look at the fantastic architecture of the building. It really is unique.”

A New Reality Part 1, until 28 Feb, The Tetley, Leeds

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to A question of taste

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.