Site making its Steel City mark

Sheffield’s Site Gallery is to reopen with three times the space, and a new mission with a new artistic director, it was announced today.

She is Sharna Jackson, whose hopes for the gallery after its reopening on September 29 are simple: “If we want to encourage artists to emerge and we want to support artists in this country we need to be fostering appreciation of contemporary art at very earliest - from 3, say.

“I want children crawling around our space, the younger we can have them the more chances we have to achieve the creative future we dream of.”

The Site is Sheffield’s Ikon, its Whitworth, its Glasgow Contemporary, even its Tate Modern, but for most of its 39 years it has hidden its light. It opened as principally a photographic gallery and for its first couple of decades it was even anonymously called “Untitled”, adopting its current name in 1996, and is set in Brown Street in the industrial off-city centre area, which the council had intended to turn into a Creative Industries Quarter but then lost enthusiasm with the onset of financial pressures.

That enthusiasm was renewed in 2011, as austerity was biting hardest, when the new joint-directors, Judith Harry, now executive director, and Laura Sillars, now running Mima in Middlesbrough, realised that something drastic had to happen if the Site was to have a future.

“We were sat on the other side of the city centre in a street that didn’t feel thriving, the building too small, the team absolutely at minimal” she says. “We had to do a lot of gazing into the future, what could it be for the Site Gallery? It was very obvious we either had to not be building-based or find a bigger building.”

Or expand, and the gaze became focussed when the independent film studios next door closed, and the council was persuaded to allocate it to the Site. “It would mean more space for art to enable us to work better in partnership with other galleries, to tour, to co-commission, things we were struggling to do”. It would also mean a more comfortable experience for visitors, a bigger cafe, shop, foyer space.

Sharna Jackson, left, and Judith Harry

And this is what the architects DRDH - Daniel Rosbottom and David Howarth - have provided, following the campaign to raise the modest £1.7m needed, with the former exhibition gallery becoming a projects area and the old studios devoted to a large new flexible gallery space, within the Victorian carapace. A new 40 metre frontage provides the proper entrance the gallery has never had. There were grants from the council and from ACE, which has increased the Site’s annual NPO grant by 62% to tide it over while the Site finds its new income sources.

The first exhibition will be Liquid Crystal Display, conceived by Sillars, which examines our world, surrounded by crystal mineral technology as interpreted by 15 contemporary artists.

Shana Jackson took up her new job on July 3, in a career that had been closely associated with bringing children and families to contemporary art, and latterly with Sheffield.  She’s on the board of the city’s Doc Festival and three years ago started Sheffield’s Playground exhibition as part of the Children’s Media Conference she’s an advisor to. In her six years at Tate Modern she founded its Tate Kids digital platform.

The Hidden Life of Crystals, 2018, by Waad AlBawardi, from the forthcoming opening Site Gallery exhibition Liquid Crystal Display

But Jackson is a woman with divided passions. Some of her time has to be spent in Rotterdam, where her other love, Anna Maria, resides. She is a 29-metre sea-going Dutch barge, a magnificent 120-year-old two-master that Jackson has restored. The boat is a fortuitous other home for her, because she has discovered a vibrant digital art community she hopes to tap into for the Site.

“I’m excited about filling space with emerging artists who are socially engaged, and I’ve got a keen eye on participation work, for which we're sponsored by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation” she says. “I want to focus on Sheffield-born and regional artists, but also bringing the international perspective we should have.”

The Site is working, in Sheffield’s declared intention to widen its broader cultural activity, with the city’s other galleries, theatres and arts organisations. Opposite its new front door is an open space, “Pinball Park” because of the strange pinhead sculptures that people it at present. A plan would involve other partners in the city, and will be revealed at the September opening.

The new gallery will, for Jackson, echo Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall as feeling like an open civic space. “We’re going to mirror some of that” she says. “But it’s not just saying we're open. There’s going to be a lot of work in going out to get people in certain areas and bring them in, and then help them to feel comfortable in the spaces.

“The programme of activity in the project space will be on a weekly basis, so if you’re hesitant, as the programme evolves and changes, there will be a hook to bring you into the main space, a friendly hook for contemporary art.”

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