Building an artistic gateway in Sheffield

Laura Sillars, Artistic Director of Site Gallery, left, with Judith Harry
Executive Director
Laura Sillars, Artistic Director of Site Gallery, left, with Judith Harry Executive Director

Work has started on the £2.7m redevelopment of the Site Gallery in an expansion programme which will see the operation treble in scale.

Extending into the former Sheffield Independent Film building on Brown Street, a new large gallery will be created, alongside a space for education, creative activity and commercial hires.

Artists impression of new Site Gallery frontage

Artists impression of new Site Gallery frontage

The addition of a 40-seat café, a shop and business units to let will support the charity to expand its trading operations.

“There are three parts of the vision – providing for artists, for audiences and a resilience with more business opportunities,” said Site artistic director Laura Sillars. “We’re trying to create a virtual circle where one balances out the other.”

Site enjoys an international reputation having over the last few years presented projects by established artists such as Mike Kelley (USA), Jeremy Deller (UK), Sophie Calle (France), Eva and Franco Mattes (Italy) and Pilvi Takala (Finland).

In 2015 alone it presented commissioned work in more than 40 cities in 20 countries including Sydney, Beijing, Thessaloniki and Basel.

While we are closed we want to take Site out into the community

Site will next participate in the UK-Korea Year of Culture 2017/8 with an exchange of artists with the city of Busan. Two artists from Sheffield will go out to Korea and two artists from there will come here. “Site is not just about what happens here but aims to provide a gateway into the world for the creative industries,” says Sillars.

But she admits that in the past Site has not been ‘tangible’ to the wider city and cites the example of Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead which Site hosted in 2013. But few in Sheffield appreciated it was an installation by one of America’s leading contemporary artists. In future they would have the space to present the context of visiting works of art.

“We want to give it space to breathe,” she says.

“We will also be looking at opening times. The galleries might be better open from midday to 7pm with the mornings used for education purposes. We’re trying to think hard about all the small aspects that add up. While we are closed we want to take Site out into the community. It’s a no-brainer.”

Already up and running is On The Road, which builds on Site’s existing programme for 14-19 year olds, The Society of Explorers.

It involves a van customised by London-based art and architecture duo Public Works going out to recruit young people to become ambassadors, curators and participants in a series of new artists’ commissions and events.

On The Road will visit festivals, community events both outside and within the city centre, complementing other events and pop-up activities such as a floating cinema on the canal in July which will bring together film, video, food and music.

Laura Sillars points out that when Site started nearly 40 years ago (as the Untitled Gallery in Walkley before relocating to Brown Street in 1988) its dedicated aim was ‘to promote photography as a valid art form’.

“That shows how things have moved on since 1979,” she reflects. “In our post-internet age where digitalisation has seeped into every element of our lives that original ambition could be adapted and serve as inspiration for what Site’s future programme should be. We want to take on that critical passion which came from our founders.”

Site has been awarded £750,000 by Arts Council England to lead a project called City of Ideas with a remit ‘to connect communities, artists, young people, technologists and academics and help them develop new approaches to art and culture in public spaces’.

It is a partnership with Yorkshire Artspace, Showroom Workstation, Forced Entertainment, Artworks Sheffield, Eclipse Theatre, Doc/Fest and Sheffield Hallam University.

It will consolidate links between arts, business and education formed by the Great Exhibition of North bid, Art Sheffield and the Sheffield Culture Consortium’s Year of Making.

Site was one of three creative hubs in the UK which were the subject of a British Council study and, says Sillars: “Rather than a hub we want to be a node, to be at the centre of a network.”

And it has been estimated that there are 600 individuals concerned with creative industries within the area.

City of Ideas connects to Sheffield Council’s Knowledge Gateway Project – an urban regeneration project within the Cultural Industries Quarter that includes millions of pounds of investment in public realm and capital projects.

Sillars puts all this in computer terms: “Hardware is the infrastructure, software the people and ideas.

“Street infrastructure is not just lamp-posts and nice seating but getting artists to produce different ways of thinking about it.

“We want this to feel like an artistic street so that when people get off the train, pass the water feature and turn left they will encounter one of the UK’s best arthouse cinemas, one of the largest studio complexes in Europe and in between a leading contemporary gallery. Other projects are on the way such as turning the open space next to The Hubs into Festival Square.”