Just opened: Leicester Contemporary

A group of artists have come together to open new art gallery in Leicester. Saziso Phiri talks to cofounder Andrew Birk about self-funding, running a gallery and giving artists a platform

A new contemporary art gallery situated in a former betting shop on Market Street (a once popular but now declining high street in Leicester’s City Centre), Leicester Contemporary is the latest addition to the city’s visual arts network of university-run galleries and artist-led spaces. Like many of the East Midland’s creative enterprises, Leicester Contemporary is artist-led, run by a collective of  artists based in the city, The Company of Artists (TCOA). The collective recently registered as a not-for-profit community interest company and the gallery is entirely self-funded. There’s an emphasis on the ‘temporary’ in contemporary, as the lease for the space is twelve months, but TCOA’s vision is to make it work for much longer, operating as a conventional art gallery with opportunities for local and national artists making interesting work.

The group opened the gallery on 18 June with a namesake exhibition titled TCOA, showing works by the members of the collective. Although the opening show doesn’t have a particular theme, it offers an insight into the artistic interests of the group, who work in diverse media from sculpture to large scale paintings and drawings, installations and collage, and who are at different stages of their careers. On entering, visitors first encounter two mixed-media abstract portraits of birds on paper, part of Lucy Stevens’s collaborative work with wildlife charities to visualise scientific reports. Matt Macken’s painting Strangers in the Afternoon (2020) a sensual display of human interaction is exhibited between two large scale paintings by Tim Fowler, celebrating the artist’s Caribbean heritage. Loz Atkinson’s works show her versatility in both sculpture and painting, including work from her Imagined Nebula series – painted visualisations of outer space. Miniature canvases by Andrew Birks embrace the newly fitted gallery wall, using a process which the artist refers to as ‘paintings of paint’. In the centre of the gallery, Steven Allbutt’s Make yourself a Target (2021) comprises hand carved baseball bats made from recycled pallets dipped in red paint. Tom Van Herrewege’s detailed, largescale chalk-and-charcoal drawings – one of a hippopotamus and another of a crocodile, both against a backdrop that includes miniature comic-like inspired illustrations – explore animal relationships. Van Herrewege’s works is a taster for the artist’s upcoming show, Anthropocene, opening in August, for which Herrewege will also create a mural work for the gallery walls.

Leicester Contemporary aims to celebrate local and national artists create exciting and interesting work, with a carefully considered programme between now and Christmas. TCOA’s Andrew Birks, who recently returned to working as an artist after nearly twenty years managing art spaces in London, talked to Saziso Phiri about the challenges and realities of making Leicester Contemporary happen.

Saziso Phiri Opening an art gallery in a non-purpose-built space isn’t a new idea, however, what’s interesting about this space is that it’s on a street where many businesses have closed down and is located in a former betting shop. How were you able to convince the building owner to lease the space as an art gallery?

Andrew Birks I was initially looking for a space to put on an exhibition and we began talking with the landlord earlier this year in January. We had a lot of conversations to and fro. I said to them, give it to us for a bit, we’ll make it better, and then we’ll give it back to you unless we find a way to make it long term. They offered it to us for a year.

SP Leicester is home to a mix of art galleries, big and small, each with its own unique offering – some catering to specific artforms and audiences. What will Leicester Contemporary offer that the others may not?

AB There is nothing in Leicester that shows contemporary art in an accessible way, where you can just walk in off a busy street and see something the average member of the public may have never seen before. You can find galleries like this all over London, but not here, and I think that is the difference.

SP Most of the art spaces in Leicester and the East Midlands are funded by public money (local councils, Arts Council England, charity donations), or through private patronage from universities and membership schemes. Being self-funded so far, what are your plans to sustain the gallery over the upcoming year?

AB There are a couple of spaces on the first floor which we’re going to rent out as artists’ studios. We have put in an application for a small grant from the council, and from Arts Council England, so we are trying to get funding because we need it and because at the moment it’s only our own money that’s been put into this. But we’re trying not to set up a model where the gallery’s survival becomes reliant on funding and where you can’t do anything unless you get the funding. The work in the exhibition is for sale, and so the small commission from sales goes straight back into the gallery. There is so much money in the art market and art does sell for a lot of money but, being realistic, there probably isn’t that kind of market locally. In the current circumstances, this may not be sustainable long-term, but we will have planted the seed and started to channel funds back into the long-term project, so we’ll see where we are in a few months’ time.

SP What kind of artists is Leicester Contemporary looking to work with over the upcoming year?

AB We do want to aim high, and to show artists from around the country who are creating interesting work that can fill this space well. We hope that by having a certain calibre of artist show their work here we can develop the reputation of the gallery. I’d like to see something that’s going to have some impact in various ways –  and it doesn’t necessarily have to be by a well-known artist, it could be someone totally unknown who is creating something amazing. Eventually, a local artist, maybe one that hasn’t had much exposure, can come in and exhibit here, and as it becomes a more established, well-known platform, they can then benefit from in terms of exposure. I’d like to create opportunities where possible, as they are few and far between, but we’ve all got to aim quite high.

Leicester Contemporary is at 18 Market Street, Leicester, open 11am–6pm during exhibitions. instagram.com/leicestercontemporary

TCOA is open until 9 July. Anthropocene by Tim Herrewege opens 20 August through 12 September

02 July 2021