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The Sheffield culture guide written by in-the-know locals

Arts Catalyst

Downstream, Wet / Land / Dwellers (2022), a place of their own and Gary Stewart. Image credit: James Clarkson.

Founded in 1994, Arts Catalyst is a visual arts organisation based in Sheffield. Since relocating from London in 2020, they’ve firmly rooted themselves in South Yorkshire soil. Through creative exchange, dialogue and collaborations that cultivate a sense of place, Arts Catalyst connects local communities and environments to the global issues that delineate our collective futures.

Laura Clarke, artistic director and joint CEO, tells us about how they’re seeding and nurturing connections with creatives and collectives within and beyond South Yorkshire. And she shares what the future holds for Arts Catalyst.

How would you describe your work?
Arts Catalyst has a long history of working with artists in unusual contexts to ask big questions about the world around us. From sending artists, musicians and philosophers on a space flight simulation in Moscow in the early 2000s to co-developing a mobile DIY environmental monitoring station with artists, scientists and indigenous community members in the Arctic, we are known for our experimental projects and collaborative ways of working.

Over the past decade, our work has focused on the ways in which creative projects can offer new ways of relating to environmental issues. We’ve worked with artists to do things like run public workshops on how to build a DIY anaerobic digester that turned our London gallery into a temporary, low-tech, off-grid gas works. We’ve also developed long-term, place-based projects such as Test Sites Calder (2017–21) in West Yorkshire. There, we worked with artists, local communities and people involved in water governance to explore alternative and more equitable models of caring for the River Calder.

What role does Arts Catalyst play in the city? What makes you unique?
We brought our place-based, collaborative and environmentally-focused approach to Sheffield through Emergent Ecologies. This programme was a series of experiments in growing new relationships and embedding ourselves in different parts of the city through artist projects.

It included workshops exploring sounds and stories of the wetlands in Shirebrook Valley and Woodhouse Washlands with artists a place of their own (Sam Vardy and Paula McCloskey) in 2021. In 2022, we worked with artist Harun Morrison, local landscape architect Fran Halsall and Sheffield Mind to transform parts of their outdoor space in Sharrow into a community garden. And in 2023 we commissioned an exhibition by artist Rachel Pimm that explored minor histories and imagined other stories about Sheffield’s industrial past.

Through these projects, we’ve developed long-term relationships with community organisations, local groups and artists across the city and beyond that focus on how art can open up different ways of relating to the places that we live.

We’ve also initiated Soft Ground. This shared arts and community space on The Moor provides affordable project and events space to local organisations and groups who advocate for social change through arts and community practices.

Mind Garden Open Day (2022), Harun Morrison and collaborators. Image credit: James Clarkson.

What inspires you and your work?
Arts Catalyst was founded on the basis that artists and artistic thinking is essential to society, and that artists can open up new ways of tackling the problems and challenges that we face. Three decades on, we firmly believe in the power of creative participation. It can spark new ideas and conversations, and nurture connections and relationships between people. And it's a way to rehearse the kind of world we want to bring into being.

Our projects and programmes are inspired by artists, the conversations we have with our partners and their communities, and our local environments. The bigger questions and challenges that the planet is facing form the backdrop of everything that we do.

What's been happening at Arts Catalyst recently?
Quite a lot! In the summer we launched Changing Currents: Climate Conversations in South Yorkshire, a podcast series that explores climate perspectives and possible futures. It features the voices of artists, growers, activists, local community groups, heritage workers and researchers across South Yorkshire.

We also recently held the Soil Futures Gathering. This event was a convivial day of eating, sharing and connecting with soil, with artists, writers, growers, organisers and educators. It was part of Soil Futures, a one-year programme and network of creative organisations that explores issues connected to soil. It is a collaboration between Arts Catalyst, RIWAQ (Palestine), Sakiya – Art/Science/Agriculture (Palestine), Struggles for Sovereignty (Indonesia) and Vessel Art Project (Italy).

Later this month, we’ll host the second Sounds from the Ground event with experimental musicians Lolina and Rat Section. Sounds from the Ground is our series of workshops and performances that explore landscapes and ecologies through sound.

Rachel Pimm, Mixed Metaphors (2023). Photo by James Clarkson.

What do you love about Sheffield? And what (if anything) would you change?
This is a very common answer, but we love Sheffield’s independent spirit! There’s a huge amount of grassroots social and environmental justice work happening in the city led by many brilliant and passionate people and organisations, so it feels like a natural home for Arts Catalyst. There’s also an exciting DIY cultural scene, particularly the electronic music scene, with organisations like Gut Level, Hatch and Mondo Radio leading the way.

What I’d change is directly connected to this. There’s a huge issue of underfunding in Sheffield’s cultural sector, particularly for smaller organisations, as well as a lack of secure long-term space. The DIY scene is such an important part of the city’s cultural ecology, but relies on the resourcefulness and determination of those who keep it going. What I’d like to see is future central and local government investment secured by the city being distributed in ways that support a more equitable and diverse cultural ecology.

What are your plans for the future?
We have a long-term vision for Arts Catalyst in Sheffield that includes a permanent, shared home for the organisation and outdoor community garden space. In the meantime, we have lots of exciting projects and programmes planned for the next few years, so stay tuned.

Keep up to date with Arts Catalyst’s work and events through their website, Instagram and X (formerly Twitter). Find out more and book your ticket for Sounds from the Ground, an experimental music workshop at Soft Ground on 30 November 2023.

–– Written by Lucy Brownson

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