“UK Disability History Month (UKDHM) is an annual event creating a platform to focus on the history
of our struggle for equality and human rights.”
As this year’s UKDHM comes to a close on 16 December, we have taken a moment at The Art House to reflect on our journey and values, which are all year round. It is no secret that accessibility in the arts is extremely important to us, and we are constantly improving our own accessibility and working towards better inclusivity for all artists.
Over nearly three decades, since The Art House was just an idea and an initiative driven by a group of individuals who saw a better future for arts inclusively, we have evolved enormously, while keeping its core values at heart. In celebration of UKDHM, we caught up with some of the key figures that were involved in the early stages of what is now our registered charity, including two of the founding members, Michelle Leon and June Russell, and The Art House’s first Director, Liz Whitehouse. Together, we unpicked the history of The Art House, uncovering how we began and the journey we’ve been on the get to where we are today.
The Art House was established in 1994 by a group of artists, led by Patrica Sutcliffe, with a determination and vision to provide studio space that was physically accessible and adaptable for as many artists as possible. With the Disability Act coming into fruition the following year in 1995, this marked an incredibly important time to instigate a shift in the arts. Patricia was an instrumental figure in the early stages and began our journey in Halifax, after she acquired office space in Dean Clough galleries to run workshops.
In the period 1994–2004, Patricia and a small group of artists and arts professionals worked to secure funding for arts projects, training events and artists’ residencies across Yorkshire and the Midlands. All in all, The Art House existed then similar to how it does today, but without a roof to house all of the creativity. Funding was acquired from a number of sources at this time, including the National Lottery through Arts Council England, the European Regional Development Fund, Wakefield Council and Yorkshire Forward. This enabled the artists to deliver more events and opportunities and work towards a larger goal, all with the crucial aim of disrupting an industry that is desperate for more inclusivity.
“For a long time, The Art House was really a platform to bring disabled artists together for support, information, exhibition and other opportunities as well as working alongside some ‘non-disabled artists’ to share skills and abilities.”
– Michelle Leon, Artist
Michelle Leon was another notable artist that shared the vision for The Art House. Having faced her own barriers in life, Michelle firmly believed in creating spaces and opportunities for both abled and disabled artists to make and collaborate.
While still in Halifax, the artist took part by delivering collagraph workshops that shared an insight into her practice. Michelle was also involved in some of the early group projects and exhibitions such as Outside the Box (2000) and Alphabet Soup (2001); she was a key voice in initial discussions about The Art House as its own building, what would happen inside, and potential opportunities including “membership commissions for artworks and disability aids“.
A new milestone was achieved in 2008 when The Art House opened a new building, exemplary in terms of physical accessibility, offering artists’ studios, accommodation, meeting rooms and community spaces. After 14 years, the vision was finally a reality.
Today, The Art House is a vibrant home for creativity in Wakefield. Our 48 studios, three Maker Spaces and two galleries house the largest group of artists and creatives under one roof in the city. We are also the only studio space purpose-built for accessibility in the region, and one of the few in the country.
Both our Darkroom, built with the support of The Disabled Photographers’ Society, and Ceramics Studio offer opportunities for artists with various access needs to flourish. Our custom-designed and built power control adjustable height enlarger bays, as well as our accessible Darkroom sink with an integrated archival wash, mean that we can accommodate up to 5 wheelchair users as they develop their photography practice. Equally, our Ceramics Studio is one of the few in the country with a wheelchair-accessible potters’ wheel, and our Print Studio is equipped with height-adjustable tables and an accessible electric etching press.
As well as our Maker Spaces, it is important to us that art can be enjoyed by everyone at The Art House. We are subscribed to the Social Model of Disability, and this year we launched our exhibitions by appointment; a much-needed new offer whereby visitors can book exhibition private views with our team. These sessions can be made Covid-secure and tailored to suit access needs. We also equip each exhibition with text in standard, large print and braille format, along with additional accommodations such as easier-read and Dyslexia-friendly interpretation, sensory ear defenders and more. Virtual exhibition tours are also readily available on our website for those unable to visit.
As we’ve grown over the years, our dedication to inclusivity has grown with us. As the UK’s first Studio of Sanctuary, we bring refugees and those seeking asylum with the wider Wakefield population to work together creatively and learn about each other. Our Arts and Health programme reaches out to specialist groups with tailored sessions to offer therapeutic creative opportunities for Wakefield residents. As well, our partnership with The Ridings Shopping Centre, known as Makey Wakey, allows artists, community groups, CICs and more to occupy vacant retail units, bringing creativity and culture to the local community.
We are proud to maintain the same core values that our former artists and creatives did before us when The Art House began, and remain dedicated to developing the work that we do with and for the community. We are at an exciting stage at The Art House where we are doing more now than we’ve ever been able to do and while it is important to use this occasion to spotlight accessibility in the arts, we are committed to a more inclusive art industry all year round.
“I am so proud to have taken on the baton as Programme Director at The Art House. It is such a special, and important place for many people. I have worked in the Arts sector for 12 years now, but since I joined the team in 2021, I have learnt so much, and continue to learn, about accessibility and inclusiveness in the sector. Attitudes have come a long way over the last 30 years, but there is so much more the Arts sector needs to tackle.
Whilst I am still very surprised at the need to tackle the poor or the lack of accessible opportunities and resources, we need to take time out to celebrate those that were at the forefront of making change, and paved the way for all of us to continue doing amazing things.
The work of The Art House was founded and grounded in breaking barriers for those that need it – and we continue to live this philosophy each day, every day, focusing on supporting underrepresented and marginalised-background networks.”
– Damon Jackson-Waldock, Programme Director at The Art House
1. The Art House front building. Photo David Lindsay
2. ‘Alphabet Soup’ (2001) exhibition in Dean Clough Gallery. Photo courtesy of Liz Whitehouse
3. (Left to right) The Art House Print Studio, Darkroom, and Ceramics Studios
4. (Left to right) June Russell, Damon Jackson-Waldock (The Art House Programme Director), Liz Whitehouse (Former and first Director of The Art House)
5. Liz Whitehouse and then Trustee David Burgess on-site during the Art House build: Photo Tony Fisher, courtesy of Liz Whitehouse
6. Archaeologists from the University of Sheffield conducting excavations during the construction of the building
7. The Art House under construction. Photo Liz Whitehouse
8. Former member Carrie Scott Huby, Photo Tony Fisher, courtesy of Liz Whitehouse
9. A celebration of moving into the new Art House building on 5 June 2008. Courtesy of Liz Whitehouse
10. The Art House under construction
Want to know more about the work that we do to reach out to you? Plan your next visit to The Art House…Find out more