Basement Arts Project: Where Art Meets Life

Alistair Woods’ Subjected to Change (photo credit: Basement Arts Project)

Alistair Woods’ Subjected to Change (photo credit: Basement Arts Project)

Basement Arts Project offers an exciting, alternative curated programme from one man’s basement, while facilitating and promoting artistic activity further afield. Located in a pre-war, mid-terrace house in South Leeds, the artist-led initiative is ever-expanding, working towards attaining funding for fully operational studios, a residency project and a gallery venue. Valerie Zwart talks to Bruce Davies, the project’s curator and chair, about Basement’s aspirations and experiences so far…

You don’t need a search engine string (“art space” + “in a family home”) to realise just how unique Basement Arts Project is. Five minutes’ chat with impassioned chair and curator Bruce Davies, or a quick scan of its manifesto – which completes with an aperçu from Throbbing Gristle frontman Genesis P-Orridge – will be enough.

Exhibition by exhibition, and mostly in the old-fashioned, word-of-mouth way, Basement Arts Project is winning a reputation for engaging, unconventional and intelligent exhibitions. The manifesto clearly defines Davies’ aspirations: artistic quality, development, freedom, and a healthy dose of localism. But this undertaking is far from a vanity project.

The artist behind this artist-run space has a strong affinity with the needs and ambitions of those at the beginning of their careers. Basement Arts and its collection were born of the frustrating reality of Davies’ own time as a recent graduate, a time when he and his friends regarded their art education as a stepping stone to a creative career, not as a career in itself.

That was then, and few would dispute Davies’ assertion that “there still aren’t enough places in Leeds for people just coming out of education to exhibit their work.” But fewer still, and this is somewhat ironic given that Davies’ day job has him behind a desk at one of Leeds’ leading ‘white cube’ art institutions, would contribute their own unfinished basement to alleviating the situation.

Truthfully, Basement’s walls are more ‘un-started’ than unfinished. Why stick to this rough aesthetic? At work, Davies sees first-hand how “the less bold can become alienated in educational environments” that are designed for one-way information flows. While acknowledging the case for both, his personal interest is in “the other” and more diverse audiences. Both the aesthetic of the basement and the fact that the space is in a family home “democratise the communication.” Where possible, Davies tries to engage visitors in discussion about the work.

Performance documentation for Speakeasy (photo credit: Basement Arts Project)

Performance documentation for Speakeasy (photo credit: Basement Arts Project)

If there is a better place to express the desire to link art and life than a home, I can’t think of it. Basement openings are relaxed and open in a way I’ve seldom encountered. It must have something to do with the presence and charm of the family dynamic, and sheer homeliness of the environment, which extends to the dining room (where exhibitors’ additional, contextual work is shown) and the kitchen (during openings).

The presence of Davies’ young family does mean that some precautions are taken. So while you won’t find an address on the invitations, information is to be regularly found in the Yorkshire Post and on Basement Arts’ Facebook page, although Davies’ Vine ‘blipverts’ (Vine videos circulated on Twitter) are his current media of choice. They are fascinating, if you can handle strobe-speed images, verging on subliminal.

If you live in LS11 though, you’re more likely to come across a flyer. Connecting with, and beyond, the South Leeds community is a strong theme in the manifesto, partially as a response to the dearth of art venues in LS11. Developing a local audience was always going to involve a steep grade, but Davies, who keeps careful figures on visitor numbers, is gaining traction in Beeston, with 40% of visitors now coming from the area.

A manifesto is all very well, but how do you know what a curator thinks until you see what they show? Davies is proud of the fact that he has “never once looked around with the thought that one project reminds me of the other, never felt like we’ve retrod old ground; and that’s after 4 years and 27 projects.” Davies’ curating is a thoughtful kind of aesthetic midwifery, “whatever the work needs, really.” He turns over the reins to those with a clear conception; acts as a traditional curator; develops shows collaboratively; or, contributes as an artist (sometimes without telling anyone).

There is little consistency in the preoccupations, passions and procedures of the artists who have shown at Basement. When I ask him, though, Davies has little trouble identifying two exhibits that most closely reflect what he wants the projects to be. They are dramatically divergent. Both shows were high points, “everything seemed to come together and worked really well in the space, but one was the result of planning and placement, as opposed to response to the space.”

Alistair WoodsSubjected to Change checked off the entire list of Basement Arts’ wishlist. “Woods was an emerging artist, having only graduated in the previous year. The show was funded, involved a residency that saw the work made on site, and in response to the space. We were able to pay an artist fee and to purchase work for the collection. In addition, Leeds Art Fund generously paid for the show’s catalogue.”

Dominic Hopkinson, A Harmony of Spheres (photo credit: Basement Arts Project)

Dominic Hopkinson, A Harmony of Spheres (photo credit: Basement Arts Project)

“With Dominic Hopkinson’s A Harmony of Spheres, we were able to slot the show in at fairly short notice, but there was no funding available and we were presenting selections from an extant body of work.” For this project, Davies worked as a traditional curator, isolating one strand of work to explicate one aspect of Dominic’s practice.

So far, so solid: no ‘MFA-see, MFA-do’ or airlessly anarchic aesthetics, just good work and active engagement with viewers. But while the future of Basement Arts’ projects is secure, the form of future projects is uncertain. “Funding is still a struggle”, says Davies of Basement Arts Project’s idiosyncratic proposition: “Some funders look at the word ‘free’ – to artists and the public – and forget that running the space still involves reception, transportation and printing costs.” Funds are also needed for some adjustments to the space that would enable a residence programme, and could well mean the difference between having a well-regarded art space in LS11 over the longer term, or not.

Following a summer hiatus, Basement’s programming will continue long into the foreseeable future, with its next show timed to coincide the British Art Show.

For further information on Basement Arts Project, see the organisation’s website and Twitter. Valerie Zwart is a Leeds-based visual artist, writer and curator. Her studio is in Leeds, UK at East Street Arts (Patrick Studios).