The Artist and the City and KULES Residency, Stoke-on-Trent

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Installation view, Ex-Factory, KULES, copyright Glen Stoker

A new five-year project in Stoke-on-Trent titled ArtCity aims to re-stimulate cultural growth and opportunity for those living and working there. With the help of awards from Arts Council England and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, a consortium of six arts organisations based in the city led by managing partner B Arts are setting out to re-brand Stoke-on-Trent as a vibrant, critical and viable site for artists to live and work – as an ‘ArtCity’.

There are two major strands to ArtCity’s work. The project aims firstly to promote Stoke-on-Trent to artists and other cultural practitioners from outside the city as an exciting place to live and work. Secondly, it focusses on increasing access to redundant buildings owned by the city council, breathing new life into spaces where artists can make and display works, and develop cultural events.

One of the first commissions from ArtCity, a new pilot residency scheme titled KULES, was curated by artist Shaun Doyle and supported by AirSpace Gallery. Taking place in the former Olympus Engineering Works building in Shelton, Stoke-on-Trent in November last year, the city’s declining industry (mining, ceramics and steel working) and its status as six constituent towns each vying for funding and investment provide the backdrop to this project.

Installation view, Ex-Factory, KULES, copyright Glen Stoker

KULES saw five artists Leigh Clarke, Chloe Cooper, Leslie Deere, Shaun Doyle himself and Mally Mallinson make and exhibit new work for the first exhibition ‘Ex-Factory’ in the 3000 square metre former factory (the mining term ‘kules’ refers to bylaws for workers’ shifts and wages). Through ‘Ex-Factory’ the artists investigated public art as a living, breathing and participatory form, one that has the ability to instil a sense of optimism for current and future generations of artists working in the city.

The group of artists lived in Stoke-on-Trent for the duration of the residency. As well as making and showing new work in the factory, schools workshops and events for undergraduates led by the artists took place on and off-site. One week research residencies were additionally awarded to Staffordshire University graduates Sarah Thorley and Corey Whyte.

‘Ex-Factory’ aimed to test the flexibility and viability of the space for the production and exhibition of work within this specific former-industrial setting. Plans are underway to curate future KULES residencies, reinvigorating other disused buildings within the city.

Stoke-on-Trent also recently hosted ‘The Artist and the City,’ an exhibition set within the context of the ArtCity project, though funded separately.

Displayed at AirSpace Gallery and The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, curators Anna Francis (AirSpace) and Jean Milton (Potteries Museum) invited four artists, Adam James, Carla Wright, David Bethell and Sophie Bard, to make new works that explore what it means to be an artist within the unique context of this city. Each artist had a prior connection to the city, be it having lived, worked, studied or shown there previously.

At AirSpace, James, Wright, Bethell and Bard made new works that imagined the future of Stoke-on-Trent, taking inspiration from the wider ArtCity project. Alongside this, at The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, they were commissioned to make works in response to four other artists, John Currie, Grete Marks, George Cartlidge and Terry Shave, who have lived and worked there, and who are represented in the museum’s collection. Wright’s installation, for instance, takes as its starting point a teapot by the prolific designer Marks who found success in the city’s ceramics industries having moved to the UK from Germany in the 1930s. The exhibition presents these different generations of artists together for the first time, creating new dialogues between diverse works and histories, and providing insight into the creative past, present and future of Stoke-on-Trent.

First published on New Art WM, 30 January 2015

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