East Street Arts: Two decades of keeping the art of Leeds healthy

20TH ANNIVERSARY: Jon Wakeman and Karen Watson at East Street Arts in Leeds.
20TH ANNIVERSARY: Jon Wakeman and Karen Watson at East Street Arts in Leeds.
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A former boxing club is pivotal in the nurturing of artistic talent in Leeds. Stuart Robinson reports on how East Street Arts has become a key provider of workspaces for artists in the city.

When the ageing St Patrick’s Social Club in east Leeds was first put up for sale, not many would have guessed what its future held in store.

The Burmantofts club had been a hub in the working class community for many years, and had also been home to a boxing gym where up-and-coming local pugilists would train and spar.

But when artists Karen Watson and Jon Wakeman went to look round the building in the late 1990s, they believed it could become something very different – a unique resource for the arts community across Leeds.

Karen told the YEP: “There was a bar and a stage and they used to have a boxing club in the basement.

“But what attracted us was the fact that it used to be a space where people socialised and came to spend their time with each other and we were interested in creating somewhere that had some of those same qualities.

“By coming together, that’s how we share resources, ideas and make things happen.”

Such was their belief in their idea, they set about getting the funds together to buy the space, finally getting the keys on St Patrick’s Day 2000.

Today the St Patrick’s Studio is firmly established the base for their visual arts organisation East Street Arts, which celebrates it’s 20 year anniversary this year.

Following a huge refurbishment project in 2004, the building now boasts 34 quality studio spaces, resource areas and project space, giving up-and-coming artists a tailor-made place to come together and work somewhere warm, secure and, perhaps most importantly, affordable.

It wasn’t easy making the dream a reality, with funding to the tune of £1.6m having to be raised to deliver the project on time.

But for Karen and Jon, St Patrick’s is symbolic of two decades of hard work after they first established East Street Arts in 1993 at East Street Mills.

The organisation was born out of a desire to nurture the plethora of talent emerging from the city’s universities and colleges, with the hope that they would stay and share their work in Leeds rather than move on to other places.

Karen said: “We’d been going since 1993 but after we went to look at St Patrick’s, we had to make quite a big decision and ask ourselves if we were going to push it and take it further.

“Once we’d decided, we had to raise the £1.6m, which was quite daunting but we knew if we didn’t do it, it wasn’t going to happen.

“But when we started out, Leeds wasn’t the place it is now and there wasn’t really a place for the visual artists to call their own.”

Their efforts have certainly paid dividends in the local arts community, with East Street Arts now the largest charitable provider of affordable arts workplaces outside of London.

Spreading way beyond their Burmantoft’s base, the organisation’s portfolio boasts more than 100 permanent and temporary workspaces and 60 temporary buildings.

They offer professional development to more than 900 artists a year in Leeds, and 700 outside the city.

Karen said: “One of the things we’re most proud of is that we’re giving people the opportunity to get jobs doing what they care about.”

One of those who has reaped the benefits of St Patrick’s is Martha Jurksaitis, a specialist Super 8 and 16mm Filmmaker.

Martha has been using her space at St Patrick’s for around five years now.

She said: “I can’t express how much I needed it and how much I still need it. It feels like a place where I’m welcome to come every day and it’s such a haven.

“The social side of it is very important too because working as an artist can be quite a lonely experience but when you’re here with everyone else, it helps you feel like you’re not isolated and you can share ideas and network.

“I would go so far as to say that I wouldn’t be doing this and working for myself now if it wasn’t for East Street Arts.”

The organisation doesn’t just work with artists on an individual level though.

This year they announced plans to hold a series of city-wide arts events across Leeds in the run up to the Grand Depart of 2014’s Tour de France. Bike Fest will be a celebration of cycling in the city and will feature artists from across the UK. It aims to raise awareness about cycling in Leeds, and to encourage the city’s residents to help their home become more a more cycle-friendly environment. The festival is open to anyone interested in cycling and wants to get involved with the event.

For more about East Street Arts and its projects, visit: www.eaststreetarts.org.uk

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