As the wave of John Lewis gentrification creeps across the city’s southside, many of Mabgate’s artists are being forced out - the latest victim is Lady Beck Studios
Resplendent in reds and yellows, Lady Beck is a spot of colour along Mabgate. Owned by Assembly House, it incubates many of Leeds’ artist visionaries, whose work frames our everyday lives: Clod Studio, who create pottery that many of us drink from in Leeds cafés; House of Cal, responsible for some of the city’s best drag nights; and Modes of Expression, the artistic team who have muralled everything from the Brunswick’s exteriors to a letter in the train station. In their own individual studio spaces, these artists have grown and flourished, adding to the fabric of the city in ways that cannot be quantified.
Or, at least, they did until recently. Having opened in 2016 as a place for young graduates and low-income professionals to work, exhibit and build communities, Lady Beck closed its doors for the last time this month, its residents driven out due to a rental increase of 40%.
Although some residents cling on, it was a cost that simply wasn’t sustainable for many, indicative of a new future for Mabgate that sees artistic endeavours such as Lady Beck sidelined in favour of luxury flats and large-scale retail warehouses.
Although governmental plans promise to maintain the area’s distinct character in the redevelopment, local venues such as MAP charity and Temple Of Boom are already feeling the pinch, knowing that the viability of their ground rent is simply a ticking time bomb of high-end investment.
As one of the creative directors of Assembly House and studio manager of Lady Beck, Emma Hardaker fits her managerial roles around co-running Modes of Expression and also working at the helm of Come Find Us, a monthly tour that seeks to explore the lesser-known artistic gems of Leeds city centre. An ambassador for art practice in the city, she was part of the team that made the decision to leave Lady Beck.
“It wasn’t an easy choice but we felt, with the future of the space not looking so optimistic, that it was too risky to try to continue operating with the new higher rental. The majority of our 25 stallholders are now looking for a new space, me included. It’s something I am trying to sort at the moment as I love working in this area alongside all the other creatives - after six years working here it really feels like home."
Although Hardaker remains optimistic that the redevelopment could be a force for good in the long run, other residents aren’t so sure. For Chloe Moody, owner of Harvest Moon Vintage, the change has caused significant implications for her work/life balance.
“I think the last thing Leeds needs is more luxury flats. The project spaces at Lady Beck are a real asset to Leeds, and I loved being part of such a diverse community of creative people. What Emma has cultivated as studio manager is something that is testament to her visions.
“I’m now going to have to run my business from home until I can find another affordable studio space, which is incredibly hard in the city centre. As somebody who doesn’t drive and lives in a small flat, it’s going to be difficult to run my business as effectively as I would like without a dedicated studio space.”
With key venues likes Temple Works in Holbeck closing due to regeneration in 2016, and Canal Mills announcing their relocation in 2019 for similar reasons, it’s difficult not to question where artists in Leeds are likely to be allowed to thrive in the future.
Whilst the universities and colleges provide a wealth of opportunity to those enrolled in study, there is currently very little support after graduation, or indeed for creatives who decide that formal education isn’t for them. Forced to pay high commercial rental prices for exhibition space, the early projects that build creative confidence no longer have their space; rapidly outpricing any young designer, illustrator or artist who isn’t financed by pre-existing wealth.
Although Hardaker will soon be leaving her role in Assembly House to focus on her own practice, she vows that the Lady Beck closure will only reignite Assembly House’s initial ethos to ensure that art-making in the city doesn’t fall victim to a class war.
“We still firmly believe that Leeds needs more affordable studio spaces to serve a growing and exciting artistic community; Assembly House are committed to using this as an opportunity to do more with the remaining site, refocusing the public programme and advocating for artists in the city. And of course I will do the same with Come Find Us.
“As for Mabgate, I just want it to be done well and make sure that conversations with the community already here are being had and that they are being seen as relevant stakeholders. Mabgate is a wonderfully diverse place with tonnes of hidden cultural spots but, if the developers don't seek this out and find ways to help organisations and artists to stay embedded in the area, we are soon going to see it lose its creative identity and edge.”