“I have seen a lot of change,” says Kate Dore, looking back on nearly 25 years spent facilitating creativity through Sheffield’s Yorkshire Artspace studios network.
“When I started as a volunteer we were in Sidney Works on Matilda Street. I remember famously I was in the ladies’ and it was actually snowing inside one day and I thought ‘We can’t carry on like this’.
“We had a really long waiting list at the time so we started looking for other buildings to move into that were in better condition, and nothing was accessible – you had to go upstairs or downstairs.
“It was at the beginning of the National Lottery, and my husband’s an architect, and I thought we could just build a building instead.”
The result was Persistence Works, an award-winning £4.25 million complex on Brown Street in the heart of the Cultural Industries Quarter, which now offers workspaces for 70 artists of all persuasions.
The building was joined in 2010 by Manor Oaks Studios, which has four large rooms for artists, and in 2013 by Exchange Studios – originally built in 1927 for WH Smith, then used as transport offices behind the now-demolished Castle Market.
As Yorkshire Artspace’s director, Kate is focusing her efforts on a bid to buy Exchange Studios from Sheffield Council.
A decision is expected to be made at a cabinet meeting later this month and, if successful, an application will be submitted to the Arts Council asking for just under £500,000 to carry out repairs to the art deco building. Already £200,000 has been spent on the place to mend damage caused by metal thieves who broke in. Exchange is 100 per cent full with 80 artists, and the waiting list for studios is growing constantly, Kate explains, in line with a Sheffield University report published earlier this year which pointed out that demand for such spaces actually increases with supply.
“The waiting list grows because Sheffield Hallam churns out an enormous number of graduates every year in creative disciplines and because Sheffield’s such a great place to be, they want to stay in Sheffield. So we try and keep up with an element of that demand.”
Kate grew up in Carterknowle. She attended Abbeydale Grange School, then studied the history of art and design at De Montfort University in Leicester before working in London for esteemed designer Sir Terence Conran.
After six years she returned to Sheffield, and now lives in Bents Green.
“We’re getting quite a few artists, particularly with families, relocating up here from London at the moment, but still selling down there, because so many studios are being closed in London due to rampant redevelopment.
“Sheffield’s not a very good place to sell art. It’s a great place to make it, and not a very good place to sell it.”
The city’s sluggish art market is not a question of money, she adds.
“Hallam is one of the wealthiest wards in the country. People seem happy to pay for something where you can see the workmanship because that’s a very Sheffield thing. So if it’s a really well-made piece of jewellery or a silver rose bowl, they can appreciate the work that’s gone into it and they’ll buy it, and I don’t think that really transfers to other parts of the art market yet.
“But to be fair there aren’t very many places that you can see the work, most of our artists and makers don’t even show work in Sheffield. So if people can’t see it and can’t see that it’s for sale, they’re not going to buy it unless they’re really determined.”
Sheffield’s creative economy is in a stronger position than 25 years ago ‘in many ways’, Kate thinks, but there are worries about a decline in public art.
“That’s really changed – it might be designed by artists but it’s made by some manufacturer somewhere. Arts education – working in schools – has dropped off as well.”
Yorkshire Artspace’s three sites will be open to the public this weekend as part of the organisation’s annual Open Studios celebration, which has taken place since the mid-1990s.
“We had maybe 10 studios the first time and we’ll have 150 open this year,” says Kate proudly.
“Last year we had 1,500 people which is the most we’ve ever had.”
She adds: “Sheffield people get to understand the time and the work that’s gone into things. It’s all part of people being interested in localism, and what’s made in their city.
“It’s a bit like buying your organic potatoes from Wortley Hall Walled Garden alongside that people start to think ‘I could buy a pair of earrings from a High Street retailer, or I could buy them from some lass that’s made them in Sheffield’.”
Opening up the studios ‘definitely’ helps people to see the value in art, Kate believes.
“A lot of it’s quite invisible. The Cutting Edge sculpture outside the station with the water running down it, that everyone loves, was designed by three of our silversmiths but it’s quite hard to find that information out, and I think that’s a very Sheffield thing.
“Sheffield’s a place where you make things – we’re not Leeds, we’re not commerce or shiny windows, and I think we suffer from that quite a bit. We make beautiful things but we don’t always tell people about them as much as we should.”
n Persistence Works and Exchange Studios are open on Friday from 5pm to 9pm, and on Saturday and Sunday from 11am to 4pm. Manor Oaks Studios will be open on Saturday, 11am to 7pm, and on Sunday from 11am to 4pm. Entry is free. Family-friendly activities are held at the weekend, and there are cafés at all three sites.
Studios chief’s culture panel role
For the next year Kate Dore is chair of the Sheffield Culture Consortium, set up in 2011 and made up of arts bosses, both universities and the council, as well as others.
The role is occupied on a rotating basis so each member gets their ‘turn’.
One of Kate’s priorities will be to oversee a seamless transition from the city’s Year of Making festival to a new, permanent brand for Sheffield, City of Makers.
“It’s going to be the shop window we’re not very good at having,” Kate says.
“So we will promote the fantastic creative things that happen in the city not just to local audiences but nationally and internationally as well.”
The consortium has £500,000 from the Arts Council for the Making Ways programme, aimed at boosting professional development among visual artists – or, as Kate puts it, ‘helping artists to help themselves sell their work’.
She will also play a leading role in any discussions around a mooted new biennial arts and culture festival, arising from Sheffield’s failed bid to host the Great Exhibition of the North in 2018.
There have been no talks yet, Kate says, but she adds: “The connections made between art and business in the city through the bid were relationships that people are really committed to keeping going, so I think that really will be the consortium’s next big thing.
“The breadth of the Year of Making was something I really enjoyed. There are a lot of festivals in the city that are about music or art or literature – I love them, but the year showcased all of that, as well as manufacturing and theatre, and I think it’s that breadth of creativity which I really have a passion for and I think the consortium represents. So I hope, if there is some form of new biennial, that it will be a broad representation of the creativity in the city.”