Kwong Lee & Nicholas James

A scene of many people under a plastic canopy. It looks like the preview of an art event.

Castlefield Gallery has always had a deep rooted commitment to nurturing new artistic talent in the North West. Part of that commitment has seen them develop New Art Spaces, an initiative which seeks out vacant retail and office units transforming them into project spaces for artists, artist collectives and artist development agencies to work from on a short term basis.

In November 2013 they took on their biggest space to date, Federation House, an eight storey (80,000 sq ft) unoccupied Co-operative building in Manchester City Centre close to Victoria Train Station. Rapidly filling with artists, Federation House has quickly developed into a buzzing and unique creative community. Following an extremely successful launch on March 13 which saw over 700 curious visitors pour through the doors, Emma Sumner met with Kwong Lee, Director Castlefield Gallery and Nicholas James, New Art Spaces Coordinator to find out more about this unique and exciting project.

Emma Sumner: How did you manage to obtain the use of Federation House; was it offered to you by The Cooperative or did you approach them and ask to use the space?

Kwong Lee: We have always been looking for a space in Manchester city centre as we are aware that there is a demand. We have previously worked with Urban Splash, Britannia Hotels and Castlefield Chapel, but these have all been one off spaces and we wanted something more continuous where we could facilitate artists use. Luckily in the last few years we have been working with a space broker recommended to us by East Street Arts in Leeds who has been searching on our behalf for a Manchester City Centre space. It’s been a long time coming but this space ticks every box. It’s a good location with not too many restrictions on how we use the space from our landlords NOMA, giving enough freedom for artists to work freely. We also have a five year lease, making the space a lot more permanent than our previous spaces.

ES: Could you explain a little bit more about your collaboration with your landlords NOMA and how your lease with them works?

Nicholas James: NOMA have been invaluable in their support and promotion of what we are doing, and are incredibly supportive of the transformation we have made to the building so far. Castlefield Gallery’s New Art Spaces fits in with the way NOMA want to energise their city centre redevelopment site, and they have lots of plans for social engagement within that area as this progresses.

KL: NOMA really understand the value of having a cultural hub in that redevelopment area and have been very actively engaged with us, especially as they are based next door to Federation House. They have seen Federation’s transformation on a week to week basis, which has meant the collaboration has been actively growing and makes this space much more of a partnership than previous New Art Spaces.

ES: So how much freedom do you have in Federation House? Are NOMA happy for you to paint walls and for artists to make their usual mess?

NJ: Eventually, NOMA’s plan is for the space to be completely refurbished which was made very clear when we took on the space, and means they are very happy for us to paint on walls, and to bring up the carpeting in the two exhibition spaces for example. If artists do want to do something which changes the appearance of Federation House we can usually come to some sort of agreement. For instance, for our official launch we were hoping to change the colour of the building’s clock face to green – to symbolise the beginning of the space, and it’s also our colour for New Art Spaces – and NOMA was very happy to accommodate this.

KL: Anything out of the norm we will negotiate with the Landlord. Although the space is very useable and practical, it’s our role to do the risk assessment to ensure the safety of all the artists and the building.

ES: Since you took over the building in October 2013, how have you seen the artists using Federation House transform the space and what transformations do you expect to see over the next six months?

NJ: From the moment we first saw the building, we always had the sixth floor in mind as the curated exhibition space. TOAST, an artist-led hosting project, approached us with an extremely ambitious proposal to make this happen, which resonated with Castlefield Gallery’s vision to lead the North West as a region that champions talent within a national context. TOAST now have this space for the first year, and have already hosted the Liverpool-based Cactus as part of Future Now, repurposed the space with an installation – The House That TOAST Built – for the launch of Federation House, and are due to host Sheffield-based David McLeavy’s Funhaus and Bristol Diving School over the coming months. Filmonik have developed their full 3rd floor space into a film making, workshop and screening space as another example, and the basement space on the Lower Ground floor has been completely repurposed as a theatre space by MARS.

KL: We expect the physical changes in the space to be constantly evolving over the next five years, and we want Federation House to remain flexible to artists needs. We have already had great feedback from those using the space; Sam Meech worked on a huge knitted banner which was part of Future Everything and also exhibited at FACT. Pool Arts took on a space that was the same size as the exhibition space to at the People’s History Museum, which they used as a work space ahead of their exhibition.

NJ: Pool Arts used Federation House as a test space to see how their work would look in the exhibition space, and how the audience would approach it. It gave them the opportunity to produce the work but also to consider how it would engage with the Peoples’ History Museum space. Holly Rowan-Hesson and Lisa Denyer’s work in particular is being directly influenced by the building, and they are working together in response to the space and to each other’s practices, exploring ideas around abstraction, materials, found objects, site specific interventions and curation.

ES: Federation House has very large open plan floors. How have you found the artists making use of the space and has it altered their working practice and the work they produce while in the space?

NJ: We wanted to move away from the enclosed studio cube space to a more open plan project space which would give practitioners scope to test out larger scale works, not that it all has to be large-scale work necessarily, but also to explore how artists could work together in an open space and to create a synergy and peer-to-peer support, which has since built up organically throughout the whole building.

ES: Why do you feel this project is important for Manchester and how do you expect it to help and benefit artists in the North West?

NJ: Federation House is a unique opportunity providing artists the space to develop and showcase their work in a way that they might not have had before. James Bloomfield, for example, had been preparing work for an exhibition at Stockport Art Gallery, and working in the space transformed the approach to his work, wherein he ended up building a large-scale installation within his space. It’s important to be able to help artists further their practice in this way, and to be able to give creative practitioners the platform to promote their work and engage with the public is something that is often not available in other spaces.

ES: What has the public reaction been to the space?

NJ: The reaction has been overwhelming; Alison Clark-Jenkins who is the Director of Arts Council North West said in her speech at the launch that there was a bit of magic in the building. We had close to 700 visitors at the launch, and we were left some great feedback on our comments sheets during the opening; previous The Co-operative workers commented that it was much better than when they worked there, and others that the space is a real game shifter. We also had great reviews from Bob Dickinson for a-n The Artists Information Company . Since the opening we have had lots of enquiries… [Phone rings, with an enquiry about how to apply for a project space at Federation House].

ES: How do people interested see this fantastic space?

NJ: It’s not a staffed space; it’s artist led, within a secured building. Some exhibitions will keep the space open, with someone at reception downstairs to let people in, and other exhibitions and installations will be by appointment. With such a wealth and variety of activity happening at Federation House, the best way to keep on top of what’s happening is through our website and social media.

Contact details for Castlefield Gallery New Art Spaces, including Federation House can be found on the Castlefield Gallery website.

Emma Sumner is an artist, writer and curator based in Widnes.

Image by Dan Hancox – Toast space, 6th floor Federation House

Published 09.04.2014 by Lauren Velvick in Interviews

1,539 words