Interview with The Tetley Co-Founder Kerry Harker and Curator Zoë Sawyer

The Tetley is set to open 29 November in Leeds. A new centre for contemporary art and learning, the space is a transformation of the headquarters of the former Tetley Brewery. Cutting edge art will be on display and there will be a Yorkshire menu and, of course, pints of Tetley’s available. Aesthetica speaks to Co-founder and Director Kerry Harker and Curator Zoë Sawyer about the new gallery and the first exhibition A New Reality.

A: What is the relationship between the exhibition A New Reality and The Tetley building, rich in history and heritage?
KH: A New Reality is simply designed to start right at the beginning, addressing the change of use of the building from private offices on an industrial site to a publicly accessible space for contemporary art. The ghost of the brewery is very much present. Its past is so recent that I felt it was important to acknowledge this history and talk about it through artists’ projects, and to do that in a sensitive and appropriate way. We didn’t want to ship in a gallery “fully formed” as if that past had just been wiped out. A New Reality is therefore a starting point designed to do this and to allow us to get to know a building which we don’t have the privilege of inhabiting until just before the doors open to the public on 29th November.
ZS: Really the project gives us (the curators, the artists and the audience) license to experiment and explore. Some artists’ projects within A New Reality don’t have a pre-determined outcome, will develop or be reconfigured throughout the project. We have embedded a certain level of open-endedness in the overall project to allow us to embark on a journey of collective learning and investigation, leave room for risk, trial and potentially informative failures!

Deliberately paced over nine months, we wanted to permit time to familiarise ourselves with The Tetley, to test out how our “project space” ethos would translate in this setting and develop curatorial programming in response to our new home. The project is very much a “live” process, designed to create a discursive and reflective environment to stimulate the production of new artwork and encourage new encounters with and experiences of art.

A: What are the different ways in which the six artists have responded to the challenge of interpreting the space?
ZS: Artists have had varied responses so far with many still in the process of responding and others hoping to return with additional reflections later on the project by contributing to programmed events and activities, contributing to discussions and publications or by collaborating with other artists within A New Reality in parts two and three.

Photographer Stephen Isles has created new work over the course of the renovation and construction period. Capturing architectural rupture, salvaged materials and detritus from the buildings former life as an industrial headquarters.

Artist / designer Joe Gilmore is coupling experimental design layouts with typography from the Gil Sans family (a font designed in the early 1930s) and other fonts contemporaneous with the era the building was constructed to echo the changing use of building as a site of traditional manufacture to a space of experimental production.

Collaborative duo Rushton and Tyman are reconfiguring their Good Life Stage into a new work Fear of The Surplus. Responding to the newly revealed original architecture of the building, the stage will be set in the triple height central atrium of the building which, because of its surrounding balconies, is similar to an amphitheatre. Situating the work in such a prominent space will create a very public arena for discussion through the programme of activists, academics, writers and campaigners they have invited to talk and instigate debate around the subject of “work”.

James Clarkson’s and Rehana Zaman’s responses are still very much to be determined, both being at the very beginning of production residencies. Both have expressed a desire to investigate the embedded history of the building.

Zaman is interested in unpicking the socio-political narratives associated with the building and weaving new ones through capturing oral histories and anecdotal testimonies from ex-workers as well as representatives of communities whose voices don’t currently feature within the current Tetley’s story.

Clarkson, on the other hand, will be tackling the physical remnants of the building’s past, developing new sculptural work from materials found on site, be they salvaged oak panels or mass-manufactured 1980’s office furniture.

Finally, Natalie Finnemore’s sculptural furniture for the resource space provides both a minimalist contrast and contemporary intervention within the traditional wooden panelled office it’s housed within and a nod to the modernist design contemporaneous with the era The Tetley was built.

A: Was the idea for the exhibition inspired by the building’s stories and histories or did it come about more from a desire to re-imagine and re-develop the building?
KH: A bit of both really. We’ve been showing artists around the building over the course of the past year – their responses and proposals have helped shape our thinking on how the project has developed. But equally we’ve researched the history of the brewery and this building, and spoken to many people who worked here, including those who worked in the building itself. The place has a mythology all of its own, to do with the days under the Tetleys when Directors were men and their secretaries were female, and English class rules dictated who was permitted to use the front door.

I think it’s fair to say that all of the artists we’ve shown round have loved the space, rather than being overwhelmed by it, which is the danger of course. Artists have really wanted to respond to the site, its architecture, its industrial past and of course the human and social aspects of its former life. All of this has been implicit in artists’ responses, we haven’t had to lead the horse to water. But simultaneously we don’t want everything we do here forever more to just be about Tetley’s. So it’s very much about respecting the past and being proud of the site’s heritage, preserving what we can, but also signaling something new. It is, after all, a space for contemporary art now. That is our mission and it will colour everything we do here. The marriage of contemporary art and industrial heritage in one place is intriguing and has led us down new curatorial avenues.

ZS: As Kerry has explained, it was a mix of both, the building’s stories and histories are manifold, fascinating and can’t be ignored but equally we wanted to be clear in our objective to transform the building into a site for the production and presentation of contemporary art. We believe the combination of history and innovation is completely synergetic, we were eager to demonstrate how the two things compliment each other and can inspire new work straight away by developing a project which looks both forwards and back. I would also add that I think we perceive A New Reality as a curatorial project (made up of a series of exhibitions, events, residencies, discussions) rather than an exhibition.

A: How do you think of the space’s role in the art scene of Leeds and perhaps even Yorkshire as a whole?
KH: We’ve been very clear from the beginning that The Tetley is not about replicating any of the existing visual arts provision in the city. We have believed for a long time that Leeds has lacked a crucial piece of the cultural jigsaw: an independent contemporary visual arts space on a large scale. We always name reference other spaces such as Cornerhouse in Manchester, Arnolfini in Bristol, or the CCA in Glasgow as precedents – but they have sprung up everywhere over recent years, except in Leeds! Pippa (Hale, Co-founder and Director) and I have been in the city over 20 years and the creation of a space like this has been talked about ever since we arrived. We formed Project Space Leeds in 2007 specifically to move the city towards this idea, and The Tetley is finally about to realise that ambition.

The Tetley will advance our mission to support primarily emerging artists, giving them a public platform and high-quality professional opportunities at a relatively early stage in their careers. It’s exciting to make new, cutting-edge work available to audiences. There’s a localism to our agenda in a sense, it’s about the basics, creating a social space, a connecting point, and enabling dialogue. That’s the starting point and we see where we go from there.

But we hope The Tetley will also be important regionally and nationally. These places act as a hub for cultural tourists, from where you can signpost the more ephemeral, grass-roots activity going on in a city. We want to work closely with more established art spaces such as the Henry Moore Institute, Yorkshire Sculpture Park and of course The Hepworth Wakefield, which has been phenomenally successful in its first two years (Simon Wallis, Director of THW, is on our Board of Trustees), to add to the world-class visual arts offer we already have in the Yorkshire region and across the North.

ZS: The situation and architectural layout of the building is enabling us to upscale our activities, operate in a new way and develop a new model of an art space not yet present in the city. Bringing our curatorial approach and interests with us from PSL we still endeavour to provide a platform for an intergenerational mix of early career and established artists resident in the region and further afield. The Tetley will provide a prominent and permanent space for the production, presentation and discussion of critically engaged contemporary within Leeds’ vibrant and varied art ecology.

A: What have you discovered about the space as a result of this project?
KH: The space is still revealing itself in many ways, because the renovation and conversion works go on right until the end, just before the doors open on 29 November. I’m sure the building still has plenty more secrets to reveal yet! The changes we’re making have really begun to reveal what a stunning architectural space it is. The single boldest gesture proposed by Chetwoods (the project architects) was to reopen the central atrium for the first time in over 50 years. It was how the building was designed originally, but the first and second floors were filled in during the mid-1950s to provide more floor space. So when we first visited the building it was a little dingy, and it’s also quite closed to the outside world: it doesn’t have the benefit of expansive glazing and presents a rather sober façade onto Hunslet Road. It was a leap of faith to imagine it reopened and full of light again, and a fitting space for contemporary art.

However, the last part of the current works will see the triple-height central space revealed for the first time, with a huge new stud wall that cuts down through the entire building, creating a massive showing/hanging space and the beautiful new Atrium Gallery. We’re all waiting expectantly for the day the scaffolding comes down and we see this new gallery space for the very first time. As a visitor, once you’re inside the building you will immediately be aware of height and light above your head, connecting you to the gallery floor up above. The reopened atrium creates a space not unlike a cathedral or a European kunsthalle with viewpoints into the atrium and gallery from the balustraded walkway around each floor.

The artists’ projects themselves have prompted many new ways of imagining the building. Because we won’t install A New Reality until just before The Tetley opens, the team here will be seeing the projects realised practically at the same time as visitors. It’s potentially a risky strategy – but we like that! Our focus is on experimentation and process, allowing artists to try out new ideas and be ambitious with their practice in an expansive space. It’s the beginning of a long exploration of our new home, it’s going to take some time to get to know it properly and understand how the spaces can work for art.

ZS: Access to the building has been limited during construction, visits have often been focused around works being undertaken with little time to stay and absorb the atmosphere and architecture. Clearing the basement and offices of the building at various points gave us time to delve through the ephemera and artefatcs which make up The Tetley archive, this uncatalogued collection is full of gems like 1920s hand-painted architectural plans, 1970s brewery marketing slides and hand-made 19thC brewing tools and paraphernalia. As Kerry suggests, there is still much to explore!

A: What is the future for this building and how might this exhibition influence that?
KH: Well, we know that we have a guaranteed 10 years here: that’s the minimum term of our lease with Carlsberg UK. Above and beyond that, we can’t be certain. The immediate area, the new “South Bank” of Leeds, is becoming hugely important as it presents an opportunity to experiment with urban planning on a large scale, and it’s very close to the city centre proper. There is talk of creating a truly sustainable community on the South Bank where people can live, work and play in a new way.

Since we made the decision to come here, we’ve seen Leeds City College open their new Printworks campus; Leeds College of Building are starting to build their new campus next door in 2014; and next summer will also see the relaunch of New Dock. It’s a classic example of culture-led regeneration and we’re happy to be a key part of that. If the city’s vision for this area is realized, The Tetley has the potential to one day be the jewel in the South Bank’s crown, a much-loved cultural landmark in the centre of the proposed City Park. That’s what we hope for! I think A New Reality will be important in signaling to Leeds and wider region what we’re about, how we work with artists and what we can offer audiences, and that we’re incredibly proud of the brewery’s near-200 year legacy which we now find ourselves custodians of.

A New Reality: Part 1, 29 November – 28 February, The Tetley, Hunslet Road, Leeds, LS10 1JQ.

1. Image courtesy The Tetley.