“How do you change the whole city’s attitude while still getting things done?” – Neil Owen, Test Space
BY Daniel Chapman
The conundrum that has always faced creative people in Leeds is that while the city can give you everything you need to succeed, success either goes unnoticed, or goes elsewhere.
“What I learned in Leeds was to ask about business rates!” says Neil Owen, who along with Steven Hawkins began Test Space in Leeds in 2010. Their first cross-venue, cross-discipline art events at 42 New Briggate, Crash Records, Temple Works and Melbourne Street gave them the grounding to take Test Space to London, New York and beyond.
“Me and Steve had always talked about doing some sort of gallery together, something like an Institute of Contemporary Arts, but in Leeds,” says Neil. “It was kind of a running joke.” After studying together at Leeds College of Art, Neil and Steve had taken different paths around the world, Neil’s taking him to Glasgow, Manchester, back to Leeds, around the world and then back to Leeds again for a breather before taking a chance to teach in South Korea.
“We both moved back to Leeds at the same time, and I said to Steve that I had six months before I was going travelling again – let’s do something over the summer. I’d worked in Manchester on some big projects, like Creative Futures, with people like Peter Savile and Wayne Hemingway, so I had some background knowledge of what would be involved.”
After being away from the city for much of the time since college, what Neil and Steven didn’t have was knowledge of spaces available, or of artists to fill them. They found one space at the Art in Unusual Spaces event at 42 New Briggate, newly opened as part of the Grand Theatre restoration, and another in the basement of Crash Records on record store day.
“So we had two spaces for ten days in June, but we didn’t know any artists – but that was actually a really good thing. We went to every art opening we could, and every event like Bettakultcha and Doodle Fest; we did a callout, asked contacts at the college for help and photographer Tom Martin, who I had taught, put me in touch with all the bands in Leeds.
“Soon we were set up: we had the space, the artists, the music, and we decided to change everything every three days and get as many exhibitions out of it as possible. That first event has been the template for everything we have done since.”
More events followed in Leeds, adding a cinema, pop-up kitchens and a bookshop at Temple Works, and a permanent creative hub at Melbourne Street that combined gallery and event space with workspaces for Tom Martin, Brew Records and I Like Press. Neil and Steven had the practicalities of supporting creativity in Leeds down.
“We learned all the boring stuff in Leeds, all the day-to-day stuff that you actually need to know – small things like who is going to man the bar. It sounds ridiculous, but people have the perception that Test Space is a massive thing when essentially it’s just me and Steve.
“You have to learn how to do everything yourself: find space, find artists, fit the space out, speak to everybody on opening night, sell the work, do the social media, run the space, promote it all and then uninstall it when it’s over and try to find the next space – I learned all that in Leeds.”
Although Leeds gave Test Space the education to succeed, their momentum became such that they had to grow outside the city.
“A lot of what we did in the early days was to try and promote art and retain talent in Leeds, and show what was going on,” says Neil. “But after a year at Melbourne Street it just came down to audience numbers.
“I realised when we did a pop-up shop at the Corn Exchange that there were only so many people in Leeds who would buy a print, and the number of people interested in art in Leeds was quite small. There was – and still is – a dedicated group of people trying to change things, but it takes time.”
There was no deliberate decision to move Test Space to London; Neil and Steve’s plan at that point was to do more events across the north. But a one-off event in London changed the focus.
“We just showcased loads of artists from Leeds – Matt Ferres, Andrew Corlett, Pogger, Ollie Redding, Brodie Doyle, some Drew Millward stuff – basically, I just took what was left from the Corn Exchange. I had joked with Steve about just taking a portfolio of work and going to London but actually that’s what happened.
“That first exhibition was part of the First Thursdays that happened on Vyner Street, when you weren’t getting tens or hundreds of people, but a couple of thousand people across the course of the night because so many galleries would be open.”
London offered an audience, but it also offered a reaction, and the confidence to keep taking Test Space to the next level, and the next city.
“The idea before we moved to London was to do one show, and two years later we’ve done ten years worth of work. Everywhere we go now the work is just good enough and that’s how you become confident – well, I was confident in the work anyway, but we get people coming to out from big advertising agencies saying, ‘This is really cool work, I’m going to send my designers down to have a look at this.’
“One of the best things when we were in New York about a year ago and having meetings about Test Space and being asked for advice about running pop-up shops – because the perception is that people in New York and London are well ahead of what you’re doing, but actually you’re from Leeds and you know more than they do, and they need you.”
Test Space’s entry into the New York scene was the same as it has been everywhere; they went with no space and two or three contacts and started making connections with everyone they could. A few conversations are leading to future plans will take that template even further.
“We’ve worked all across London, and two shows in New York, so the question is, where do you go next? You can only go overseas, and we’re looking at China. Through a friend we’ve potentially got a space in Beijing; Tom Martin introduced me to the editor of Time Out Shanghai; one of our artists, DRB, his wife just came back from Hong Kong and has contacts. You put it all together and it becomes doable – that’s how it starts. You just need one or two people.
“Part of the interest and the challenge now is finding out what the scene is like, and how you would do it – a static exhibition or a fashion show? Do you work with a brand or sponsor?”
Test Space haven’t taken their eyes from home, with new events in London – they’ve been involved in the opening of the new House of Illustration at King’s Cross this month – and continuing showcases for Leeds artists.
“Pogger and Ferres are both still based in Leeds, but we’ve sold their work at pretty much every show we’ve done. Ferres does canvasses and big painted objects and they all sell; Pogger is different and quite dark – and people don’t really know who he is, which gives him some interest.
“Ben Murphy moved to London from Manchester, but he’s from Ilkley and went to Leeds College of Art, and he’s really big at the moment. He draws with electrical tape and has just done a solo show in Hoxton, then he’s off to Denmark. He has the same attitude I do about self-promotion and getting the work seen and out there and not looking back too much – he’s all about finding interesting spaces and interesting people to work with.”
The talent Leeds produces continues to do well outside the city, but without the hometown profile of Manchester, Glasgow, Bristol of London artists.
“You don’t always remember that someone like Ben Murphy is from Leeds,” says Neil. “We’ve talked about doing a Great Yorkshire Show, an exhibition of people from Yorkshire who work elsewhere – it would be interesting to do that and play around with the idea because there are a few people that you just never realise have the connection.
“It’s the same with Tom Martin – Tom and Danny North are two of the best photographers around, and both made the decision not to move to London, but to live near Leeds and work in London when they need to. They’re people the city should be proclaiming because they are internationally known photographers.”
Neil still sees Leeds as a hotbed of art talent, that has the artists but is struggling to build the audience.
“Leeds Met and Leeds College of Art are two of the best art schools in the country,” he says, “And it should be different. I’ve thought a lot about this and I don’t know how you explain it.
“I think it comes down to promotion, and self-promotion. Leeds has a very good scene but there needs to be more telling of what we do – a bigger audience might exist, and I’m sure it does, but we have to get the word out.
“You can sell fifty tickets to an event in Leeds and that’s great, but those fifty people turn up to everything. How do you expand that? You can’t run a business if the clients aren’t here and the audience isn’t here – so how do you go about changing the whole city’s attitude at the same time as actually getting things done?”
The trail that Test Space blazed might have made a move to London necessary to find another level, but Neil can still see echoes of their efforts in Leeds today – and retains hopes for the city.
“I don’t know if you can change people’s mindset that easily, but if you look at Andrew Critchett doing his earliest Fish& nights at our events – four years down the line you’ve got Belgrave Street Feast and Trinity Kitchen. You can see spaces and events that have a connection with what we did, like pop-up art shops at the Corn Exchange, and it’s nice to see those things and that people are still taking risks and being ambitious.
“When it’s somewhere you grow up and somewhere you call home, you’d like it to be successful. At the end of the day we want to tell people we’re from Leeds, and have people say – Leeds? That’s cool.”
To read more about Test Space head over to their website here.
Originally published in The City Talking Leeds: Issue 13