‘A kick in the teeth’: Leeds artists fear loss of spaces is killing cultural scene

<span>Bryony Bond, director of the Tetley Gallery, which was forced to close in 2023.</span><span>Photograph: Gary Calton/the Observer</span>
Bryony Bond, director of the Tetley Gallery, which was forced to close in 2023.Photograph: Gary Calton/the Observer

Last year, the city of Leeds held a year-long celebration of culture, complete with festivals, newly commissioned works of art and community projects. More than 1,000 events took place, with hundreds of volunteers and local schools taking part.

This year, however, artists and ­creatives in the West Yorkshire city are being forced out of their workshops and galleries, and say the dwindling number of spaces is crushing Leeds’s creative scene.

Aire Street Workshops, in the city centre, is home to about 150 artists working at more than 50 small enterprises. It has been owned by Leeds city council since 1981, but the council is planning to close the building to save money – and tenants have until 31 January to vacate the premises.

Photographer and designer Camille Hewitt, who helps run Aire Street Workshops’ social media pages, called the decision “shortsighted”. She said: “I was doing quite a lot of work on the Leeds 2023 Year of Culture as a set designer. Obviously it’s a bit of a kick in the teeth to be doing so much work for them one year and then the next year to be evicted from my studio.”

The owners of photography lab Take It Easy, also based in Aire Street Workshops, called the decision “disappointing”. Founded in lockdown, the company processes at least 300 rolls of film every day.

Joe Singleton, one of the owners, said: “We’ve always been passionate about making sure film photography is relatively affordable. Part of the way we can do this is by having such an affordable place. If we lose this space and our rent increases, it might have to be reflected in prices – which is not at all what we want.

“There’s no way the council realises the scale of what’s in here or the stakes for our businesses. They’ve obviously got a list of buildings that are their assets, and they’ve just picked this one.”

Jaydon Rowbottom, an artist who has painted murals around the city, said the evictions could deter creative people from staying in Leeds. “It feels like I’m being restricted and cut off. It doesn’t give me much hope for future generations coming in. They would go to a university here and then go somewhere else.”

Around the UK, rents have risen, and councils battling financial crises have cut the amount of money for arts. Earlier this year, the Local Government Information Unit found that, of 128 authorities in England, a third were planning to cut spending on arts and culture due to squeezed budgets.

Private rents, too, have risen. Other creative spaces in Leeds have closed in recent months or will do so imminently. In April, the Leeds nightclub Wire announced it would shut this summer after almost 20 years.

A spokesperson said the club had made the decision in the face of a challenging economic climate. “There was a mixture of increased landlord fees, cost of living crisis and the changing nightlife habits of young people – so it just seemed like the right time,” the spokesperson said.

The club has fostered local music talent since it opened in 2005. “We’ve had plenty of staff and DJs who played here who have gone on to do really big things like tour the world or become BBC radio hosts. Mella Dee, Ben UFO, Pearson Sound – they all started here.”

Niamh Ingram, a DJ based in Leeds, said the closure of Wire and Sheaf St, another music venue that shut at the end of last year due to rising costs, had worrying implications for the growth of local talent: “If there are less spaces to do this, for folk to try to build a career, there risks being a regional imbalance of where DJs are emerging from.”

The Tetley, a contemporary art gallery on the city’s south bank, was housed in the old Tetley’s brewery headquarters for a decade but was told in January last year that it could no longer stay there, according to director Bryony Bond.

It closed its exhibitions last October, moved out in March and is now searching for a permanent home, while trying to continue supporting local talent and the local art scene as best it can.

It will rebrand this month and reposition itself as a peripatetic organisation focusing on art commissions and community projects. Recently it has been working with children in south Leeds on the Inside Out art and play project.

“We’ve had to adapt our business because we want to keep supporting artists and the arts in the area – but without a space, we’re going off-location,” said Bond.

“I am optimistic about securing a new home. I think it is possible – it’s just very difficult in the current climate. West Yorkshire isn’t overwhelmed by cultural spaces, so we have a role to fill here. A physical space would be hugely beneficial.”

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The campaign group No Space Left to Play, which is fighting for venues in Leeds to stay open, believes physical spaces for creative projects are “essential” to the city. The group was formed in December 2023 in response to the Tetley gallery’s closure. A spokesperson said: “If we don’t do something now to safeguard our much-loved spaces and venues, the damage could last for decades.

“If you don’t invest in physical spaces … then ideas within communities will leave and people won’t want to stay around to live in Leeds. Leeds has plenty of creative and curious people and ideas – we just need the space to learn, express and play.”

Rose Dufton, a contemporary fine artist and print designer who has her workshop, Still Studio, in Aire Street Workshops, has started a petition against the closure which has more than 5,000 signatures.

Leeds city council said it had organised a meeting with LCVS, the social enterprise that runs Aire Street Workshops, to discuss the end of its lease. “Separately we have also arranged a meeting … with tenants to explore what targeted business support they might need and to hear their views on city centre accommodation requirements for the creative and cultural sector as a whole.”