Kate Dore steps down as director of Sheffield’s Yorkshire Artspace – ‘I feel my job is done and it’s time to move on’

Kate Dore is leaving Yorkshire Artspace in a very different state to when she first arrived 27 years ago.

Wednesday, 18th September 2019, 8:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 18th September 2019, 5:12 pm
Kate Dore at Persistence Works, Brown Street, Sheffield. Picture: Mark Howe

The provider of artists' studios, which Kate has led as its director, has its hub at the award-winning architect-designed Persistence Works – the UK’s first purpose-built complex of its kind – but was previously based at Sydney Works on Matilda Street, where conditions were a little more challenging to say the least.

“My first winter at Sydney Works was a real eye-opener," says Kate, who grew up in Carterknowle, studied in Leicester and worked for the esteemed designer Sir Terence Conran before returning to her home city in 1992.

“With no proper heating system, artists would tell me they had to come in to start warming their studio for several hours before they could take their gloves off to work. In the office, we had to work with our feet in cardboard boxes for warmth and one day it started snowing in the toilet. It doesn’t take more than one winter to make you convinced that artists do not have to suffer in order to be creative. And yet I still visit studios in the UK where there is no heating and very poor working conditions.”

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Exchange Place Studios, Sheffield. Picture: Mark Howe

Yorkshire Artspace has since added another city centre building to its portfolio – Exchange Place Studios, a refurbished Art Deco gem – and now caters for around 170 artists in Sheffield.

“In 1992 I wrote to six visual arts organisations to offer my services as a volunteer and only got a reply from one – a nice letter from the director of Yorkshire Artspace, David Manley. On a very rainy day in June I arrived at Sydney Works in a wet red kagoule and, well, 27 years later I feel my job is done and it’s time to move on.’’

Since the 1960s, artists’ studios have been a driver of urban regeneration, populating buildings in inner cities that are run down and therefore cheap to rent. This can attract other cultural and non-cultural neighbours to newly fashionable locations – often meaning rents start to rise, pricing out artists.

But Kate has striven to avoid such an outcome.

Sydney Works, where Yorkshire Artspace was based when Kate Dore joined. Picture: Kate Dore

Yorkshire Artspace moved to Sydney Works in 1982, the first cultural organisation to set up in an area of the city centre that was still very much a manufacturing base. Untitled Gallery – now the Site Gallery – Red Tape recording studios and the Showroom cinema followed, and in the early 1990s the area was designated the Cultural Industries Quarter under a Sheffield Council initiative.

By 1995, with a short lease and a long waiting list, and the CIQ growing around them, Kate surveyed the 30 studio holders at Sydney Works, plus another 30 on the waiting list, to ask them what their ideal studio would be like.

Their needs were incredibly varied – jewellers required a small but very secure space with good light, sculptors needed large spaces with very little natural light if they were welding, while painters wanted north-facing windows and a space to stand back from their work. All needed to be warm and dry, and all of them wanted to know their workspace was secure in the long term.

The survey showed that the ideal building for all 60 artists and makers didn’t exist, meaning it was time to be bold.

After £5.7 million of fundraising Persistence Works, designed by Feilden Clegg Bradley, opened in October 2001, going on to win several national architecture awards. Six years later Yorkshire Artspace was commissioned by Sheffield’s Housing Market Renewal programme to look at the potential for neighbourhood studios. The result was the development of Knutton Road Studios in Parson Cross, a partnership with the SOAR charity, and Manor Oaks Studios, established alongside Green Estate.

“I remember one of the artists visiting the site during the construction of the studios at Manor Oaks and a local lad came over to ask what was going on,” says Kate. “When she said we were building artists’ studios he looked blank. When she said she was a silversmith he asked ‘Do you do much raising? My grandad was a silversmith.’ Sheffield is a place where people make things, it’s in our DNA, but cultural organisations today don’t always use words that everyone can understand.’’

Yorkshire Artspace is not council-funded, but Kate puts everything the organisation has achieved down to the authority's backing.

“Sydney Works was rented from the council in the 1980s. The site for Persistence Works was council-owned and they held it for us while we raised the funding to start building – we did pay for the site but at a very reasonable price and we have a long lease on a peppercorn ground rent,” she says.

“The council’s Housing Market Renewal programme was really innovative, showing that provision of cultural facilities, alongside the usual sports and leisure, could positively impact on perceptions of an area where people live. And then in 2013 I was approached by Sheffield Council to look at a building in Castlegate.’’

The old South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive offices, overlooking Victoria Quays, were in a state of disrepair and at risk of demolition. The building – originally called Hambleton House – was opened as a wholesale branch for WH Smith.

“I remember going past on the bus and thinking how huge it was, and what a state it was in, but if you looked past the 1960s steel glazing and the SYPTE signage there was something lovely there,” Kate says.

A short-term licence was agreed but, just before it was signed, metal thieves broke into the premises.

“What we found brought me to tears. Not only was all the copper piping and wiring stripped on every floor, but almost every toilet and handbasin had also been smashed just for the hell of it.”

The council was supportive once again, offering an extended rent-free period to finance the repairs. Arts Council England awarded £500,000 for the refurbishment and, in 2016, occupancy hit 100 per cent.

Yorkshire Artspace is focusing on its exhibition programme for at least the next two years, so Kate is going freelance, helping other cultural organisations secure and rescue buildings. Her last day is Thursday, September 19, and a new director is being sought as her successor.

“I will miss the lovely staff, the board members and the artists so much – it’s such a wonderful creative community,” Kate says.

She is looking forward to seeing Exchange Place in a new ‘garden setting’ thanks to the council’s Grey to Green highways scheme, and the installation of an artwork outside Persistence Works next year. “But probably from the top deck of a bus,” Kate adds.