The Sneinton Art Scene

Words: Mark Patterson
Illustrations: Rich Dundas
Tuesday 17 June 2014
reading time: min, words

Nottingham will never be mistaken for Paris but it is slowly being reorganised into French-style ‘quarters.’ In April the city council approved plans for Royal, Canal and Castle quarters to go with the business-orientated Creative Quarter that is based in and around Hockley. While LeftLion understand that there are as yet no plans to actually reorganise residential areas of Nottingham into arrondissements, readers may be wondering if there are also plans afoot to create the equivalent of Paris’ bohemian Left Bank.


All joking aside, if any part of Nottingham already deserves to be called the Artistic Quarter, it is Sneinton. It is here, on the edge of the city centre, that there is a thriving cluster of independent art galleries and artist studios. The artistic quartier extends from Alfred Street South, home to Backlit Gallery, to the very edge of the ‘Eastside Island’ wasteland where One Thoresby Street, a former lace factory, is located. In between these can be found Surface Gallery, on Southwell Road, and the Bohunk Institute on Fishergate Point. That’s four galleries showing edgy contemporary art within a mere fifteen to twenty minute walk. You’re not going to like all of the art. You may even have trouble finding the galleries. But it should at least be appreciated that a DIY art scene has pulled itself into existence in a rather grey end of town which is arguably on the edge of change.

Although housed in buildings that are a far cry from the glossy art shops of the city centre, each of the Sneinton galleries have developed their own character and style; all provide artist studios that are permanently occupied; and all four could be affected by their location, which is both an opportunity and a threat. The opportunity stems from the fact that this part of the city has the low rents necessary to make small independent art galleries financially feasible. “In Sneinton there are a good number of ex-industrial spaces that haven’t yet been redeveloped into housing or flattened and this makes it more affordable to make artist studios and galleries,” says Bruce Asbestos (nee Bruce Ayling), who runs Trade Gallery on One Thoresby Street. “If you reach further into town, and unless you can make a deal with a landlord or shop owner, then you will have to stump up quite a bit for rent, and that will be a struggle if you are just starting out. Being a bit further out makes it a bit easier.” The flip side is the fear that future development stemming from the Creative Quarter could cause rents to rise, or even knock down the very buildings the galleries occupy. In other words, Sneinton’s art scene could become a victim of urban regeneration.

If so, it would be the familiar story whereby low costs attract creative enterprises, which help make an area more attractive, bringing money as well as developer and landlord interest, which price the creative enterprises out of the area. Certainly, the threat of redevelopment is already being faced by the most visible of the four galleries, Surface Gallery. The volunteer-run gallery and its upstairs studios have long been a staple of Nottingham’s independent art scene, having moved to Sneinton from the NVAC centre on Mansfield Road in 2008. But the landscape around the gallery has changed since then.

First Sneinton Market Square was redeveloped into an expanse of fountains and granite, and now the run-down shop units of Sneinton Market, directly opposite the gallery, are being ‘renewed’ as workshops and studios. This may sound positive but for Surface Gallery committee member Jez Kirby, events suggest it is time to start looking for a new venue closer to the city centre. “The city council don’t have any plans for the bus depot next door at the moment so I think we’re safe for a couple of years,” he says. “But we’re still in the middle of a redevelopment area and within the next six months we’d really like to find a new building.”

At One Thoresby Street, which is owned by the adjacent science business incubator BioCity, Asbestos has never regarded Trade Gallery as a permanent space. “You have to accept that spaces that provide low rent also have a high chance of being redeveloped,” he says. “If you are looking for a permanent space then you have to make that one of your core focuses, like Primary have done over the other side of the city [Ilkeston Road]. For me, when I started Trade, it was about having a small space in which I could test ideas out.” Despite this, Asbestos believes that, “it will be a very long time until artists and galleries are priced out of Nottingham” and it is probably premature to assume that the Sneinton ‘scene’ is on the verge of disappearing even as it becomes part of the character of the area. As Backlit Gallery director Matt Chesney says, “Many people have raised concerns that a sign of the CQ working would be an increase in rent and interest in the area. But for now we’ve been assured that this development will not directly affect not-for-profit organisations.” Indeed, Chesney says he would like to see Sneinton become as well known for its art and creativity as New York’s Meatpacking district and Birmingham’s Eastside Projects. There’s ambition for you.

Despite uncertainty, the four galleries are developing new programmes and activities which are bringing visitors, interest and creative flair to that side of Nottingham. Backlit, located in a city council-owned former warehouse, has put on events featuring Young British Artist Mat Collishaw and Turner Prize nominee Mark Titchner, and is currently developing a community engagement programme; Surface Gallery’s recent Street Art show brought in more than 300 people on its opening night, including folks who wouldn’t usually venture into art galleries. Jez Kirby recalls that when artist Ian Fink was painting the graffiti-style exhibition sign on the windows, he got into conversation with a passer-by who said he used to make graffiti. “This guy said, ‘I’ve been in and out custody all of my life but now I’ve changed my life around and have been working as a cab driver for the last six years.’ He came in to the gallery, liked what he saw and wanted to find a particular artist so he could ask him to decorate his son’s bedroom.” Kirby added, “There’s no elitism here, so people feel comfortable when they come in.”

Down the road at Bohunk Institute, developed and run by Allan Binns inside a former fitness gear shop, there is barely a week in the diary not already booked by an exhibition. Since opening in March last year they have put on 27 events and now have plans to develop an intern programme. With good links to Nottingham Trent University, and scores of fine art students and graduates in the city looking for opportunities, there is unlikely to be a shortage of candidates. Nearby, at One Thoresby Street, Asbestos’ Trade is one of three galleries. On the top floor is The Attic while up a narrow set of stairs can be found Triple O G, where punky exhibitions of art zines and graphics are put on a room not much larger than a broom cupboard. If there is a real heart to the Sneinton scene it is One Thoresby Street since the place is well embedded in local art history. The building hosted events in British Art Show’s fringe Sideshow in 2010 and is also tied up with the art group Moot, who arguably pioneered the Sneinton art scene by building a small gallery within a former hosiery warehouse called The Factory in Dakeyne Street back in 2005. Moot, four NTU fine art graduates, moved on to One Thoresby Street and handed The Factory to Backlit, which later found itself locked out of the premises when the city council condemned the place as a fire hazard. Although Moot dispersed in 2010, former member Tom Godfrey has opened a new gallery in Primary while Candice Jacobs is curator at The Attic, a semi-lit demi-monde which perfectly matches the ideal of a New York art loft, although lacking views of the Hudson river.

As well as putting on regular shows, the galleries also provide artist studios. Bohunk and One Thoresby Street each provide more than twenty studio units; Backlit has 21; Surface Gallery houses eight studio artists, called ‘Surface Dwellers’ who emerge once a year to put on their own show. It perhaps goes without saying that, for gallery-goers, a major strength of the Sneinton scene is that each of the galleries has a distinct identity. Trade Gallery tends to specialise in artworks drawing on performance, internet, film and new media; Surface Gallery puts on many group shows and its curated Postcard and Street Art exhibitions have become favourites in the city’s exhibition cycle; Backlit now has a full management team, including a marketing officer, and has the clout and contacts to bring in shows by rising and established contemporary artists; Bohunk Institute has an interest in art that explores urbanism and this theme is set to become central to a new programme called Today’s Precarity, Tomorrow’s Cities dealing with urban planning and the opportunities and problems of living in cities.

The newest of the four galleries, the Bohunk building is owned privately by a sympathetic landlord who charges low rent. Even so, getting through the first year was a ‘reality check’ for Binns, who self-deprecatingly describes himself as a ‘glorified site lad’ since he has a managerial job with his dad’s electric cabling company. With the experience of running the gallery for a year behind him, Binns wants to fine tune the gallery’s identity by curating more of its own exhibitions, rather than relying on guest events, and get back to his original idea of using the gallery’s cavernous interior for big, impressive solo shows. “We’ve survived our first year. Now we want our own programme starting in September and October where we put on our own shows, something we can put our own stamp on.”

A set of exhibitions themed around city life makes perfect sense for a gallery like Bohunk since its surroundings present a definition of the urban environment. In the shadow of the Lace Market, the Ice Arena and BioCity, and near an unforgiving and confusing road junction, Bohunk is almost invisible in such a densely built up area - built up, that is, with the obvious exception of the large open ‘Eastside Island’ which serves as a visible reminder of the fragility of investor confidence in urban regeneration. Despite big plans to develop the eighteen hectare site for business and housing, the plot has stood vacant for twenty years and has become an urban meadow ringed by the BBC, NHS, BioCity, Apex Court, One Thoresby Street and the dilapidated warehouses of the Great Northern Railway. The last firm development proposal came from Tesco in 2011 and didn’t go ahead in the face of city council opposition. Today, so far as some of the artists working nearby are concerned, the site has more value as an undeveloped informal public commons, crisscrossed by paths, than for its potential to become a developer’s £900m ‘Eastside City.’ The site’s significance and potential has been studied in an international art project called The Wasteland Twinning Project which last year led to an exhibition in One Thoresby Street that hilariously critiqued and undermined the view that the best and only use for the land is to build on it. As writer David Bell has said, the reason the site is regarded as ‘wasteland’ is because it is currently economically unproductive in the same way that ancient wildwood was once regarded as wasteland because it wasn’t producing food. Yet the issue remains that the site, which now falls within the Creative Quarter’s remit, will undoubtedly be ‘developed’ in some way - and that when it does there is the potential to impact Sneinton.

So, what would the Sneinton galleries most like to see happen at the island site? “I think the least interesting [option] would be the Tesco plans that have already been shelved,” Bruce Asbestos responds. “I think there is a clear understanding in the council that the island site is effectively central Nottingham, and the decisions they make about the site will affect the city’s economy and character for years to come. Something like a supermarket would halt any further expansion of the city. The most likely thing is a business district, perhaps a little pared down from the original plans and built in stages, with BioCity as a central focus. Having said that, I would like to see what other more inventive solutions could be put on the table that would make Nottingham stand out as a destination.” At Bohunk, Allan Binns likes the site’s current use as public commons and remarks that, “there is a real opportunity there to do something different with this side of town” - such as use it for permaculture.

Similar questions arise over the potential impact of the Creative Quarter as a whole. Some artists are wondering what benefit is to come out of it and how the initiative is going to involve them. Says Asbestos, “We worked hard to go to lots of events and understand the main drive of the development. From what we could gather the CQ is about everything from education to start-up business to super high speed broadband, so we decided that our time was better focused on the existing programme we have in place, to keep working with our existing funding partners and to develop our relationships outside of this conversation.” At Surface Gallery, Jez Kirby remarks: “It would be nice to sit here and say it’s [the CQ] coming our way.” There is a markedly more positive attitude towards the CQ at Backlit Gallery. The gallery is promoted in the ‘Arts’ section of the CQ website and Matt Chesney believes the CQ has raised ambitions within the area. “I think there is an understanding of the need for artists and designers to invigorate an area and, more importantly, to encourage artistic entrepreneurialism which has an additional social and cultural value. It makes it a desirable place to ‘set up shop’.” The differences in attitude towards the CQ raises an issue: are there any shared values between the galleries, or a sense of ‘all in this together’? Formal co-operation already exists between Backlit, One Thoresby Street and Primary, which work together as the New Midland Group and offer an internship. Informally, Allan Binns probably speaks for all when he says that all the galleries benefit from interest in art and in the area. Asking all the gallery directors about this, they offer no sense that there is competition among them for attention, audiences or funding.

Yet as a visitor, you can see that the Sneinton quartet all suffer to an extent from a lack of visibility and limited opening hours. These places are off the beaten track, hard to find and sometimes even harder to get in to. For some people, though, this is all part of their bohemian attraction, or a necessary element in their left-field creativity, which is often at its most exciting and least compromised when it is on the fringes of things.

And it should be remembered that Sneinton is arguably on the left bank of the Trent; it’s quite some distance from the it, yes, but it’s definitely in the correct quartier to be seen as Nottingham’s potential rive gauche. M’lud, I rest my case.

Forthcoming exhibitions: Trade Gallery, Ruth Beale; Bikes, Caves, Raves until July 19. Backlit Gallery, House of the Flying Wheel Friday 6 June - Sunday 31 August. Bohunk Institute, Voyagers and Voyeurs Saturday 14 - Saturday 28 June.

Backlit website
One Thoresby Street website 
Surface Gallery website

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