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Sharna Jackson interview: Artistic director on reopening Sheffield’s Site Gallery after £2.7m expansion – ‘It does feel like a rebirth’

Sharna Jackson, artistic director at the Site Gallery, Brown Street. Picture: Andrew Roe
Sharna Jackson, artistic director at the Site Gallery, Brown Street. Picture: Andrew Roe

To say Sharna Jackson was happy to be appointed artistic director at Sheffield's Site Gallery would be something of an understatement.

When Tom Fleming, chairman of the forward-thinking venue's board, called earlier this year to tell her she'd got the job, she found herself 'literally squealing'.

The Hidden Life of Crystals, 2018, by Waad AlBawardi, part of the Liquid Crystal Display exhibition.

The Hidden Life of Crystals, 2018, by Waad AlBawardi, part of the Liquid Crystal Display exhibition.

"It was embarrassing," she says, giggling at the memory. "I was trying to play it cool, but no... I was so happy to have this opportunity. It's fantastic for me personally."  

The gallery on Brown Street, which reopens this week having trebled in size with a £2.7 million expansion, specialises in new media, moving image and performance art - think digital installations and offbeat dance presentations, with Jarvis Cocker as a chief patron.

Sharna leads the way to the upstairs studio to talk as preparations are made for a festival celebration happening from Friday to Sunday - Liquid Crystal Display, the first exhibition in the 262 sq m main space, is being installed, pictures are waiting to be hung on the bare white walls of the corridors and activity has begun across the road, where a hitherto neglected area called Pinball Park will form part of the proceedings.

Site, which reaches its 40th anniversary next year, has been closed since 2016. While the team has been out 'on the road' to different places in the meantime - "I hope people haven't thought we were all just chilling," Sharna remarks with a wry smile - getting the building back represents the start of a new era.

"It does feel like a rebirth. And the staff have been incredible. This is what they've been gearing up for, for the past 18 months."  

The gallery is taking over premises next door previously occupied by Sheffield Independent Film. The headline sum of £2.7m includes a 25-year lease on the building, so the true bill is closer to £1.7m. Arts Council England - which upped Site's annual funding by 60 per cent last year - gave a grant of £970,000, Sheffield Council pledged £125,000 and fundraising paid for the rest. A bigger café - Kollective Coffee and Kitchen, an offshoot of The Grind in Kelham Island - is being provided, as well as an events area, a better shop and workspaces to let.

Around 12 people work at Site - the number expands and contracts according to projects, but still seems surprisingly small, I say. "It is," admits Sharna, who shares leadership duties with executive director Judith Harry. "We work very hard."

Not that she will be forcing her colleagues to put in excessive hours to compensate. "Lives and health are absolutely important," she stresses. "We'll be open more days so we will all have to pick up the slack. But I'm not making people work every night, that's not what I do. In arts and culture we are quite respectful of people's time. It's very different to when I worked in start-ups and the media - I mean, it was encouraged to be there at midnight, eating pizza, working on a release. And that's not the culture I want to foster here. We plan and we're efficient."  

Sharna, 37, grew up in Luton, Bedfordshire. Her parents came to the UK in the 1970s from St Vincent, a 'very tiny' island not far from Barbados; her father worked at Luton's Vauxhall factory while her mother ran the home. "I was the first person to go to university in my family, and the first to work in the arts," she observes.

TV culture shows were her primary influence - by the age of eight she was already 'obsessed' with The South Bank Show and Arena, impressively highbrow stuff for a child still in primary school. "I really loved the theme tunes," she remembers.

Local museums were the first galleries she visited with school - other than cars, Luton's heritage is in straw hats, so she and her classmates were treated to 'lots of boater-making'. As a teenager, an arts centre called 33 was her regular haunt.

She considered a career in journalism, but the opening of Tate Modern in 2000 was a watershed moment. "I thought, 'I'd really like to work there someday'. And I did."

Sharna spent seven years with the Tate, launching its award-winning Tate Kids venture. She has written children's books, worked at the Design Museum, consulted for the V&A's Museum of Childhood and did a stint at The Broad in LA. 

She already had connections to Sheffield; she is on the Doc/Fest board and is on the advisory committee of the city's Children's Media Conference, curating its Playground exhibition for families that started at Site in 2016, encouraging her to look for a full-time job here. She has moved to Sheffield with her eight-year-old son but spends part of her time in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, the home of a major passion - Anna Maria, a 29-metre seagoing Dutch barge that she has restored. Rotterdam also has a thriving digital arts scene, she has discovered, which will no doubt help Site's international ambitions, which run parallel with its determination to support local creative talent. Along with partners Yorkshire Artspace, S1, Bloc Projects and Museums Sheffield, Site has been awarded £375,000 by the Freelands Foundation to support the professional development of 20 city-based artists over five years. Each will receive £20,000 worth of investment.

"I'm not an artist," Sharna reflects. "I am a person who I guess is a bit of a meddler, who tries to make and find opportunities for people. That's not to say I'm not going to get involved in the shows, I absolutely oversee it all. But we've got a fantastic curator at Site - Angelica Sule is brilliant, her mind blows my mind."

Sule came up with the idea for Liquid Crystal Display alongside Sharna's predecessor, Laura Sillars, who has taken over at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. The show suggests we live in a 'crystal era', supported by mineral technologies at the heart of phones, computer screens and so on. "Just think about all the ancient technologies and artefacts that are facilitating the tech today," Sharna enthuses. "It's really interesting and a good poke into that theory."

For the show, Anna Barham has created a piece called Crystal Fabric Field, designed to mirror the shapes that appear naturally in crystals as they form. Conveniently, it also incorporates shelving for the other exhibits. "It's breathtaking - it really shows off the new gallery to its full potential, just in its vastness."

What does she like to see in a work of art?

"I want it to interest me. I want it to question something, perhaps. I want it to do what it's set out to do and do it in a way that intrigues me."

Her personal favourites include works by Joan Jonas and the late Louise Bourgeois, both driven by big themes such as sexuality and feminism. Sharna thinks Site has a duty to champion diversity and respond to outside events like Brexit or the Windrush scandal. "We're not going to have a 'Brexit show', but it's in the consciousness. We're not avoiding any topics here."

On Friday evening experimental performer Nwando Ebezie - from Nigeria via Oldham - will appear in the gallery for a 'curated happening' as her alter ego Lady Vendredi, 'an inter-demensional blaxploitation popstar'.

Meanwhile, 2019's gallery programme will reflect Site's four-decade history since it started in Walkley as Untitled in the late 1970s. A show opening at the start of February will 'look back over the 40 years, really thinking about what that means for people in Sheffield', she reveals. "It will give an opportunity for people to have their say. That's shaping up to be really exciting."

Site reopens on Friday at 5pm with an opening party. Liquid Crystal Display will run until January 27. See www.sitegallery.org for full details of the festival weekend.

Pinball Park’s revival

The Site Gallery is giving an underused public space a new lease of life.

The venue is leading an initiative called City of Ideas, teaming up with organisations such as Forced Entertainment and Eclipse Theatre - and part of the work involves revamping Pinball Park, which is opposite the gallery between Sheffield Hallam University's HUBs building and Spearmint Rhino.

With a name inspired by its shape, the small square was created as a 'breakout space' for visitors to the short-lived National Centre for Popular Music, the HUBs' original use.

A project manager has been appointed and landscape architecture firm Wayward has been hired to come up with proposals for the area's future; the group will be in the park from 6pm on Friday listening to people's suggestions during the opening night party, returning through the daytime on Saturday and Sunday. On Friday evening the square is also hosting an outdoor bar, street food organised by the Peddler Night Market, and music by artist Ashley Holmes and DJ Porter Brook.