Making connections: How Venture Arts are fostering new artistic collaborations with your support

Artist Ben Goring with his work in the ceramics studio at Grizedale Arts

The team behind Venture Arts in Manchester reflect on the impact of their innovative CoLab Series, which creates new opportunities for artists to collaborate, supported by a grant from Art Fund.

Based behind an unassuming blue door in Hulme, Manchester, is a multi award-winning visual arts organisation.

Founded in 1985, Venture Arts works with around 100 learning disabled and neurodivergent artists each week, removing barriers to the arts and helping them to develop their individual practice. Studio artists have been commissioned by museums and festivals, had artworks placed in national collections, and exhibited at Tate Liverpool, the Whitworth in Manchester and the Gallery of Everything in London.

And, most recently, a new venture – made possible by Art Fund members’ support – has seen them take part in art-world collaborations that they wouldn’t have accessed otherwise.

Artist Ben Goring with his work on display at the Manchester Contemporary art fair
Image courtesy of Venture Arts. Artwork © Ben Goring. Photo © Sarah Boulter

Made possible by a £50,000 Reimagine grant from Art Fund, Venture Arts’ CoLab Series connects artists working at the studios with other arts organisations through creative exchanges and residencies.

“This project is absolutely crucial to our work, in the sense that so often in the past learning disabled or supported studios are set aside as something ‘different’,” says Venture Arts’ director Amanda Sutton. “It's really important that the artists we work with are not othered, or siloed; that they are part of our general artist community.”

Sutton argues that initiatives like CoLab are essential to achieving this. “Learning disabled artists would never, ever, ever have opportunities like this,” Sutton says. “For our artists to be able to travel, to be able to see other artist’s studio spaces, to meet with other artists, is what most artists can do off their own back, but [CoLab] is really absolutely vital, because it's equalising the artistic playing field.”

CoLab's collaborations: From Grizedale to Germany

So far, 17 Venture Arts artists have taken part – and the results have been transformative. Through CoLab, they have been able to expand their practice, reach new audiences and influence other artists.

Take Ben Goring (pictured above), who did a week-long residency at Grizedale Arts in the Lake District. “Ben is a big character and he likes to make big work, but because of the confines of our own space, he hasn't really ever been able to do that,” Sutton explains. In Grizedale Arts’ ceramics studio, Goring had room to create large-scale pieces for the first time.

Goring’s work was then chosen for exhibition at the Manchester Contemporary art fair in 2023, with one piece selected by a panel of curators for Manchester Art Gallery’s permanent collection.

“He was absolutely delighted at that,” says Sutton. “But he's also an artist who's never, ever earned any money from his work.”

Catherine McEvoy, Untitled, 3D printed shape markings on tracing and carbon paper, 2023
Image courtesy of Venture Arts. Artwork © Catherine McEvoy. Photo © Martin Livesey

For Catherine McEvoy, a Venture Arts artist who’s severely restricted in her mobility, a four-week residency at Longsight Art Space led to her work being exhibited at Art Festival Begehungen in Chemnitz, Germany.

Sarah Boulter, curator and creative producer at Venture Arts, explains: “[McEvoy] worked with an artist who does 3D printing who took these pieces of clay that Catherine had squeezed in her hand and reproduced them in 3D print, so it was like the image of the inside of her fist.” Beautiful in their own right, McEvoy then used these to create marks on carbon paper laid over paper – their rhythm and intensity depending on how much she was enjoying listening to Elvis that day. Able to work on a bigger scale than she had previously, the resulting pieces looked like “an aerial photograph, almost of mountains,” Boulter says.

One connection leads to another

This arc of progression has repeated across CoLab projects – from Malik Jama, who went from projection mapping at city centre venue Soup Kitchen to being commissioned by Quays Culture to create large-scale light pieces for Glow festival at RHS Garden Bridgewater and Lightwaves festival at Salford Quays; to Horace Lindezey, whose work with Castlefield Gallery was a source of inspiration for architect and lecturer Eamonn Canniffe.

In Germany, Boulter observed that Venture Arts’ inclusive ethos was “an eye opener” for audiences of McEvoy’s work at Art Festival Begehungen – particularly as “organisations like ours, there aren’t many of them in Germany or in Europe really.”

And back in the UK, the project has brought Venture Arts to the attention of senior figures within the art world. “It's helping us make that shift change in terms of our organisation moving on from being seen as Manchester-based,” Sutton says. “It's been very successful, I think, on that front.”

Artist Malik Jama’s projection-mapping work at RHS Garden Bridgewater's Glow festival
Image courtesy of Venture Arts. Artwork © Malik Jama. Photo © Martin Livesey

What comes across strongly is the snowball effect that a project like CoLab can have. From one connection leading to another in an artist’s career, to shifting perceptions within the industry, it’s an initiative with wide-reaching implications.

As Boulter says: “It's been a really amazing artist development journey.”

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