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The early days of Yorkshire Artspace, interview with studio holder Brett Payne

Silversmith Brett Payne has been a studio holder since the very early days of Yorkshire Artspace, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. We are fantastically proud of this organization, not least at this point when we are about to make dramatic improvements to Exchange Place Studios, and are operating at 100% capacity, with more than 170 artists based here. We love a good trip down memory lane, however, and thought we would stop by Brett’s studio for a quick chat about the early days at Sydney Works and the changes he has seen both in the organization and in the area that became the Cultural Industries Quarter during this time.

When did you join Yorkshire Artspace?

I joined in 1981 when we first moved into Sydney Works.

How did Yorkshire Artspace come about?

It came about as a reaction to the chief funding bodies at the time, who wouldn’t fund or help provide artist studios at all. They would only fund small projects and we had to fight hard to get them to realise artists weren’t part time teachers or ‘weird little creative elves’, but that art was a serious business, and artists needed spaces to create. So we had to exist on our own, and make that happen on our own terms.

Can you describe how it was back then?

We wired it ourselves, took the lift out, built partitions for studios. None of us had any money so we had to learn how to do everything ourselves. There was a fantastic do it yourself ethos going on. We had to take the rubbish out, clean the toilets, everything. We had a little gallery too, though I don’t remember it being any good! The building was a 100-year-old cutlery factory, it was filthy and freezing, and the dirt was always falling off the ceiling and on to your work! There was definitely room for improvements.

What kind of work was being made in these studios?

All sorts of stuff was going on in there; I remember one studio holder built a full size canal boat in his space, and we had to knock a wall down to get it out. We had amazing parties, we turned ceramics kilns into pizza ovens, and a couple of rock bands rehearsed in the basement. It was the beginning of the 80s; lots of sex, drugs and rock n roll!

How do you think Yorkshire Artspace has changed since its early days?

It has perhaps become a bit more middle aged and definitely a lot more organised. We have become the establishment, and so have lost some things along the way, but with that comes wonderful perks like heating, security, stability and the time to get on and do your work rather than always having to fix things in the building.

How has the area changed in this time?

Apart from the landlord of the pub opposite, (The Matilda Tavern) no one lived within ¼ mile of our building, so we could do what we liked. There were just cutlery works and factories all around here. So after working hours, there was nothing, there was barely even any street lighting. Now, the population has sky rocketed - there are so many student flats but back then there was absolutely nothing. All city centres are changing rapidly, and this area of Sheffield is pretty much unrecognizable to what It was then.