Ten years of AirSpace Gallery, Stoke: “We feel like it really belongs to our city”

AirSpace Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent is celebrating 10 years of artist-led activity amidst the shifting environment of the city’s post-industrial regeneration. a-n Writer Development Programme participant Anneka French talks to its directors and takes a look at the gallery’s ten-strong birthday show.

DECAPOD, gallery window view featuring Camille Leherpeur, 'Portrait of the Artist in 2014 (The Fool)', 2014. Photograph Glen Stoker

This year marks the tenth birthday of AirSpace Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent. As the North Staffordshire city’s first and so far only dedicated contemporary visual art space, it continues to lead the way for critical artist-led activity within and beyond its geographical remit.

Initiated in 2006 by artists David Bethell and Andrew Branscombe, AirSpace began by looking to support fellow art students at Staffordshire University. “As students it was crazy that we had to go so far to see contemporary work,” says Branscombe. “We wanted a gallery and a place where we could all have a studio here.”

Branscombe – who with Anna Francis and Glen Stoker is one of three AirSpace directors – explains that “after many conversations” the council’s arts development team put them in touch with Mike Wolfe, the former elected mayor of Stoke-on-Trent. He worked in property development and had bought an old pottery factory called Falcon Works.

“We negotiated the use of part of this space for a year on a peppercorn rent,” says Branscombe. “It was completely derelict and many of the people that helped us clean it later became studio members.”

It was, however, a short-term solution and with the building in a deteriorating state they began looking for a new home. Since 2007 AirSpace has occupied a Victorian building on Broad Street in the city centre, gradually taking over the whole of the space with the help of the council. The move, notes Francis, was prompted by a vital recognition from the city council of the importance of rooting AirSpace within the city’s then new ‘cultural quarter’.

DECAPOD, gallery installation view. Photograph Glen Stoker

Today, AirSpace comprises a dedicated exhibition gallery and studios, and runs an ambitious programme of gallery-based and off-site exhibitions, residencies and community projects. Its founding ethos remains – an earnest commitment to supporting future generations of artists, to artistic quality, the growth of fruitful, sustainable relationships and a continued relevance to Stoke-on-Trent’s unique community and context.

DECAPOD, AirSpace’s birthday exhibition, fittingly encapsulates many of its aims. The ten artists showing have been nominated by artists, curators and organisations who have worked with the gallery over the past decade. Including new and existing works, the exhibition is both reflective and forward-looking, while nurturing those relationships that have made it successful …

Read the feature in full at a-n. Commissioned and published by a-n, 15 March 2016.

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