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The Triumphant Return of Sheffield's Art Scene

With the reopening of Site Gallery and S1 Artspace, and the rare luxury of studio space in the city centre, the community seems in buoyant health

For over a year, a significant hole was left in Sheffield’s art scene as two of the city’s most significant galleries, Site Gallery and S1 Artspace, were closed for redevelopment. The absence of a significant institutional presence had seen Site and S1 become hugely important to the city, making their closure keenly felt. While S1’s development is still ongoing, the July opening of their current space, followed by the September opening of Site’s newly expanded home, trebling the gallery in size, felt like a triumphant return. 

With Sharna Jackson recently appointed as the new Artistic Director, Site’s reopening also feels like a fresh start, a chance to reconsider the nature of the organization and its role within Sheffield’s ecology. Jackson’s background in digital and social engagement positions her appointment as indicative of a growing trend across the sector towards recalibrating the priorities of the gallery to be more focused on engagement, and to integrate that with exhibitions, to make it part of the main course rather than a side dish.

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‘Construction House: Order & Limitations’, 2018, installation view, S1 Artspace, Sheffield. Courtesy: S1 Artspace, Sheffield; photograph: Reuben James Brown

Jackson’s vision for Site has yet to really be seen, as the re-opening exhibition ‘Liquid Crystal Display’ was curated by her predecessor Laura Sillars and current curator Angelica Sule. The exhibition’s title references the ubiquitous LCD displays found across smartphones, computers, televisions and more, and posits that we now live in a ‘crystal era’. The show is literally structured around Anna Barham’s newly commissioned Crystal Fabric Field (2018), which houses the other artworks within its crystalline structure, unfolding and stretching its angular form throughout the gallery space, making the most of the new possibility for working on a large scale.

Nearby, situated within the iconic brutalist housing estate Park Hill, S1 inhabits its second temporary home within the estate, within the former parking garage, where they intend to stay for approximately five years, as plans develop and funding is secured for the new permanent gallery and studio complex to be built on the same site. As such, the current incarnation seems like a test run for the future, proof of concept before funding bodies like Arts Council England or the Heritage Lottery Fund commit to supporting the full-scale redevelopment.

The current exhibition programme, ‘Construction House’, exhibits S1’s studio holders throughout a six-month programme of exhibitions responding to different aspects of teaching at the Bauhaus, ahead of the legendary school’s centenary in 2019. Initially set up by graduates from Sheffield Hallam University in 1995, S1 used to be more of a studio space than a gallery, and while the emphasis has changed over time, the organization has always maintained some studios, and it has always provided opportunities for the studio artists to be part of the exhibitions programme. The plans for the permanent site include room for 50 studios, bringing back balance to the two main functions of the organisation, while the integration of the studios and the gallery, at this proposed scale, offers a different model for how a gallery can function, including local artists as opposed to elsewhere in the country, where artists often claim to be shut out from inaccessible local institutions.

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Rachel Adams, ‘​Lowlight’, 2018, installation view, Bloc Projects, Sheffield. Courtesy: Bloc Projects, Sheffield

Support for local artists is a running theme across Sheffield’s organizations, as this summer Site was awarded GBP £375,000 from the Freelands Foundation to support 20 artists over the next five years, while Bloc Projects have been able to increase their artists’ professional development offering through Making Ways, a Sheffield Culture Consortium visual arts programme that supports much of the current activity in the city. Working on a smaller scale than S1 or Site, Bloc Projects have nonetheless become integral to Sheffield’s gallery scene, focusing on artist development, often giving an artist their first solo show, while the adjacent Bloc Studios accommodate over 60 artists in their city-centre building. 

City-centre studios are a surprisingly real possibility in Sheffield, as artists around the country continue to be pushed further and further to the peripheries of the city, organizations such as Bloc Studios and Yorkshire Artspace just between the two of them have the capacity for more than 200 artists and makers right in the heart of the city. The longevity of these organizations is also notable, as Site approach their 40th year in 2019, Yorkshire Artspace are a further two years older still, and the youngest of the organizations mentioned thus far, Bloc Projects, have been going since 2002.

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Ann Lislegaard, Crystal World, 2018, installation view, ‘Liquid Crystal Display’. Courtesy: Site Gallery, Sheffield; photograph: Jules Lister

It was this longevity, the desire for something new amongst the longstanding foundations of the city’s art-scene, that motivated Mark Riddington to form Gloam, a small-scale project space and studios nearby to Site and Bloc within Sheffield’s ‘cultural quarter’. As organizations such as S1 and Bloc become increasingly professionalized, it has created a gap for the more flexible, experimental artist-led projects such as Gloam. Similarly, recent Sheffield Hallam graduates Hannah Lamb and Lucy Lound founded Womp in August of this year, aiming to provide cheap studios for artists such as themselves who are recently out of university and are priced out of studios within the more established organizations. The availability of space in Sheffield ensures that there is still room for artist-led projects within the city, and although Gloam are due to lose their current space to residential development, it’s this availability that allows Riddington to be calmly confident of finding a suitable replacement. 

Whether it will stay this way is yet to be seen, Sheffield could end up going the way of London or Manchester, with development running amok and creating an unsustainably expensive city. But for now, the scene seems to be in robust good health, with one outstanding contemporary art centre just opened in Site Gallery, another not far off in S1 Artspace, while retaining the presence and input of local artists.

Main image: Tim Etchells, Different Today, 2018, Site Gallery, Sheffield. Courtesy: Site Gallery, Sheffield; photograph: Jules Lister

Tom Emery is a curator and writer based in Manchester.

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