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“yet nothing changes, does it?” — leeds, 1990 & the british art show

“yet nothing changes, does it?” — leeds, 1990 & the british art show

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It’s easier to divide time into quarters than a city. Centuries and days and hours and minutes and seconds all slice neatly into fourths, but start chopping up a city that way and you run fast into the French and their crossover quarter definition of ‘district.’

You can divide time into quarters an infinite number of times; you can divide a city into an infinite number of quarters. That might be why there are so many quarters in Leeds; somebody in the city has found an infinite amount of time to fight a battle against infinity.

A quarter of a century has passed since 1990, and in 2015 one of 1990’s highlights, the British Art Show, is coming back to Leeds; a city much changed since that bygone era when Quarry Hill was largely unbuilt and Leeds United were in the Second Division and hang on a minute wait.

Some day we’ll be able to read the story of a city just by switching on ‘Track Changes’. But for now our analogue view of the recent past makes it look like a different country, but one where lots of things do seem pretty much the same; but only just.

The British Art Show 8 is a big deal. It might not have the popular appeal of a Grand Départ, that brought 250,000 to the city centre last July; but when BAS7 opened in Nottingham in 2011 114,000 people went to see it. The BAS doesn’t only show critically acclaimed British contemporary art, it aims to show it on the biggest scale, and has an international prestige that puts it in company with the biennials in Venice and the Whitney in New York.

It will open in October in a Leeds that took a Bambi-like headlong slide through 2014 and found enough elegance in its spindly legs to shut that little bunny berk Thumper right up, even if only for a moment; a city where more and more people are discovering and flexing their muscles and looking ahead a leap to 2023, and hopes of becoming European Capital of Culture.

The start of the year 2015 might not have a quarter of the significance given to an occasion like 1990; a zero at the end to signal the first year of a new decade will always beat a five. But the first YEP of the nineties, published on the decade’s very first day, seemed only dimly aware that 1/1/1990 was a date of opportunity.

The front page rang in the era with reports of a ‘Pub Axe Kidnap’ in Wakefield and an ongoing ambulance strike; you had to flick through to the op-ed pages for any sense of occasion, where regular columnist John Wellington set the tone.

“So it’s hello to 1990, and a merry wind to the tragic and traumatised 80s,” he wrote. “Yet nothing changes, does it?”

Not when you put it like that, no. Of hopes for the nineties, the only optimism to be found was from a cross section of British birdwatchers, whose aim for the decade was to record the 600th bird species in the country: ‘Bird Hope Takes Flight For 90s’ (the last official list from the British Ornithologists’ Union, from January 2014, has them at 596 – nearly there!); while a determined bunch of party-seekers had been spotted swapping Leeds at New Year for the Brandenburg Gate, photographed with a homemade Leeds flag that earned them a spot in their hometown paper under the headline ‘Berlin Wall Baht’at’.

Changes were coming to Leeds, and were visible in the city, even if the press seemed reluctant to start the year by looking forward to them. A YEP column did mention in passing that a refurbished Corn Exchange would open that year with bushels of speciality shops and a large public mural by Graeme Willson above the bus terminal on Call Lane, but only on its way to asking “So what’s gone wrong?” with plans to convert the old Jacob Kramer building on Cookridge Street for the Henry Moore Institute; in other arts news, Opera North were seeking a ban on beeping digital watches and a cat named Mischief was photographed helping a local family orchestra to rehearse.

Some newness was beginning to reveal itself anyway. On March 8th 1990 West Yorkshire Playhouse opened its newly completed “£13million pleasuredome,” as Leeds Other Paper dubbed it; “In daylight the ‘supermarket’ jibes are had to refute,” reporter Gillian Skinner added, “But at night, the internal lights shine out and the Playhouse comes alive, standing moored at the edge of the city like a great ship, full of potential and a certain mystic.”

Graeme Willson mural, Leeds • by Shang-Ting Peng

Graeme Willson mural, Leeds • by Shang-Ting Peng

Gillian even did dare to use the word ‘optimistic’ about the theatre’s future, although inaugural artistic director Jude Kelly sounded a more familiar note in the interview when she said, “Leeds needs to sell itself more,” hoping the Playhouse could help Leeds “project a stronger, more powerful image.”

It was in Leeds Other Paper where appetite for the nineties could be found. Fervent in its radical investigative reporting, it also harnessed and catalogued a music, arts and theatre scene that barely drew mention in the city’s mainstream. The Yorkshire Post, the YEP’s supposedly savvier big sibling, launched the new cultural decade with an interview with Dr Brian Durrans, anthropologist at the museum of mankind in London; and a review of Tom Phillips’ exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, also in London, filed in a section called ‘London Galleries’.

When the British Art Show arrived in Leeds it was at least reviewed by the YP, but it seems to have crept by the YEP without their noticing; although the reluctance to dig it might have been in part because, well, nobody was digging it. “The trial by media and critics which began months ago precedes the opening of the British Art Show like a baleful omen,” began the YP’s reviewer, referring to the rough time the touring exhibition had when it opened in Glasgow as a centrepiece of that city’s year as European Capital of Culture.

“Dreadful,” said Colin Bell in The Observer, adding that it had “nearly killed Glasgow 1990 before it had begun.” The main objection was to the selection; the BAS committee had eschewed the “summings up” of previous years for something “exploratory … forward looking … focusing on new developments”, and claimed to have visited over 1,000 artists’ studios all over the country.

Of the 42 artists in a thousand they found, three quarters lived in London and more than a third were recent graduates of Goldsmiths College, where one of the selectors taught. “It seems much of the selectors’ travelling and looking was to the wrong places,” wrote the Yorkshire Post; while William Feaver, again in The Observer, noted that in a nod to its opening venue, if the artists weren’t Londoners, they were Scots, but the wrong Scots: “Who would have thought a British Art Show in Sauchiehall Street could go ahead without any of the those painters whose boasted success helped promote Glasgow into becoming the Cultural Capital of Europe it is today?”

The show seemed to make little sense when raising the curtain on Glasgow’s year as the sixth of those capitals, so it’s little wonder the YEP didn’t glance twice when it passed through Leeds on its way to its spiritual home, and some context, in London. The London/Scotland carve-up by the curators left only Kabir Hussain’s single year at Jacob Kramer College in 79–80 to represent host-town raising; there were workshop events and discussions on themes from the exhibition, but no fringe, and no discernible impact on the city’s existing art scene.

That art scene included 86 exhibitions listed in the pages of Leeds Other Paper in 1990; fifteen of those made up the Final Year Show at Jacob Kramer College, and sixteen more were at the City Art Gallery, including the British Art Show, as well as exhibitions of local lad Henry Moore and his gang’s time in Hampstead in the thirties and forties; a retrospective of Andy Galsworthy’s sculpture since 1976; and three exhibitions of German Art to celebrate Dortmund Week and Leeds’ twin city.

As the Playhouse brought people back to Quarry Hill, Peter Mitchell’s exhibition of photos of the flats that came before it, Memento Mori, went on display at the other end of The Headrow, while David Collins of Leeds Other Paper felt out of place among the members of the Leeds Art Collection Fund at the opening of their 75th Anniversary Exhibition: “A strange affair with a tangible sense of ownership … There was something unnerving about men in tuxedoes drinking champagne, casually running their hands over their favourite sculptures in such a proprietorial way”; beating the rest of us into the future and renamed the Leeds Art Fund, they didn’t wait a quarter century after their 75th to hit 100; that milestone was celebrated in 2012.

Outside of the civic spaces, 1990 shows traces of today’s Leeds art. In partnership with the University, Pavilion exhibited paintings by Tehran-born Karen Babayan in the old park pavilion on Woodhouse Moor they transformed into the UK’s first women’s photography centre from 1983 until 1996; that’s now Akmal’s Tandoori Bistro, while Pavilion continue to commission contemporary visual arts in Leeds and Karen Babayan’s book of stories, Blood Oranges Dipped in Salt, was published by the University’s Wild Pansy Press in 2012. The Shot Up North exhibition of northern commercial photography was held in the reception gallery of the Design Innovation Centre at 46 The Calls; these days that show is held at the Gallery at Munro House, who last year began holding pop-up exhibitions back at 46 The Calls.

Other trails have gone cold. A rapid programme of eleven exhibitions by contemporary artists at Art Company on Bishopsgate Street ended abruptly in mid- July, just after permission was granted to build the office block that now stands in the building’s place, just up the hill from the Scarbrough Taps. Leeds Art Space Society opened a new space for installation work on Maris Street near Saxton Gardens; the old warehouses, the Leeds Consumers Ice & Cold Storage building and even the streets around there are no more – look under the grey chequered student flats for their rubble now. In a bright pink shed by the railway line, Fat Freddy’s Cafe offered a home for artists, punks and druids a viaduct’s width from the main run of Call Lane; there’s parking there now for the businesses within that viaduct’s arches.

It’s the loss of places like those that inspire nostalgia; but it’s the lack of replacements that one day we might want to be nostalgic about that’s the real loss. In some ways Leeds has changed a lot in the quarter of a century that has passed since 1990, and passed between the British Art Show’s visits. But in other ways it has stayed the same; maybe in too many ways.

After all, change: nothing does, does it? Much of Quarry Hill remains derelict; Leeds United are back in Division Two. There are still only 596 known species of British bird. Leeds at the start of the nineties would be different, but familiar; but we’re nearer to 2023 now than we are to 1990. We don’t have a quarter century to make the city’s next quarter turn, but with more optimism about the opportunities than we had back then, we might not need one.

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Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 20


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