Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Organisational Development: Visit to Site Gallery

As part of AirSpace Gallery's period of programme and organisational reflection, research and development, ahead of our intended programme of works 2019-2021, we embarked on a series of research visits to relevant organisations across the country.

In late 2018, I visited Site Gallery in Sheffield and spoke with Executive Director Judith Harry. I was particularly interested in their organisational development, but also to hear about their major - and at the time imminent - Capital Development Project.

SITE Gallery
Site Gallery is Sheffield’s international contemporary art space, specialising in moving image, new media and performance.

Pioneering emerging art practices and ideas, we work in partnership with local, regional and international collaborators to nurture artistic talent and support the development of contemporary art.

At the heart of what we do, is to connect people to artists and to art, inspiring new thinking and debate through our exhibitions, talks, events and other public activity.

We work with early career to established artists to commission new work, produce solo and group shows, deliver residencies, performances, events and community programme. Through diverse programming, we reveal the process of making art and invite our audiences and participants to engage, explore and connect.

In 2018 Site Gallery re-opened after a building programme which trebled the scale of its public area.  We now have a large scale gallery, a dedicated projects space, café and shop as well as a beautiful new façade and main entrance.

Executive Director
Artistic Director
Curator (City of Ideas)
Producer (City of Ideas)
Engagement Curator
Technical and Operations Coordinator
Ops and Front of House Manager
Finance Manager
Finance Assistant
Marketing and Commercial Manager
Young People's Programme Producer
Programme Assistant

Site has been operational for 40 years - transforming from a photographer’s gallery (originally set up by Sheffield Hallam photography graduates in an out of town space) into a long standing RFO>NPO organisation and one of the country’s leading contemporary art spaces, with a focus on performance, film and new media.

At the time of interview, Site were about to unveil a brand new ACE funded Capital build - which trebled the scale of its public area, increasing its Gallery spaces, adding a café and shop. The interview here, and the experience of Site, was of interest to AirSpace as we are exploring any city’s need for a large scale Contemporary Visual Arts venue, the political will to see that happen, the viability and the process of large scale capital funding.

The initial plan for Site’s new build started in 2012 with a rejected bid - rejected because of an unrealistic scale of ambition. The process of putting that bid together, allowed for it to be unpicked to form a more realistic workable plan was submitted in 2013. The new design plan specifically answered the challenges at the heart of Site’s business strategy. The importance of Arts Council’s funding conditions informed this - a clear condition is that they will only fund capital projects that ensure organisational resilience and financial stability. The strategy for income generation with the new build here is to make the building pay for itself - through the lease of space such as its business units, leasing the new project space to other cultural and commercial organisations, developing a larger audience that will spend time and money in the Gallery, in its café (which is leased out) and shop which will stock editions from artists working with Site.

Atop of and necessary for this financial resilience, one of the 5 goals for the capital project was to create a competitive artistic offer - before the expansion, the smallness of the gallery space limited the quality and scale of exhibitions and works the team were looking to programme. Despite the organisation’s reputation for quality, potential touring partners would inevitable be deterred by the small size and potential of the space. Finding arts partners and co-commissioning touring shows forms a major part of the financial model.

Through, and as a result of the new build and capital expansion, staffing at Site increased to project manage the capital process, and then to cope with the increase in its output - adding an operations and front of house manager and a full time curator - taking full-time and project roles to 13 posts. (In 2012, this had been 4 full time posts - Executive Director, Artistic Director, Marketing and Technical - and 1 part time post - Finance. All other roles were volunteers).

It is of key interest that an early strategy at Site was around increasing personnel capacity, through long term funding - via funding bodies such as Paul Hamlyn, Esmee Fairbairn and Arts Council’s Business Development Grants and Catalyst programme - which funded roles on a long term basis, and bought time freeing up the schedule of the directors to allow their organisational restructuring vision to flourish. Judith’s background was in fundraising, and Laura Sillars the new Artistic Director, believed in the strategic importance of fund raising within her position.

A fascinating part of the discussion here was about the role of fundraising and fund-finding within the organisation.

“ I don’t really believe in employing fundraisers - I think everyone (in the organisation) needs to fundraise. Everyone in this organisation, now, has got specific areas within their job description which is about income generation. So it’s either fund-raising or commercial, but everyone knows exactly what they’re doing.”- Judith Harry

This approach allows for a team ethic towards the future prosperity of the organisation, and a sense of ownership of the organisation, and upskilling of individuals within the organisation. The emphasis is on long term roles but not necessarily for a specific individual to be in that role for a long time - an expectation is more that an individual might be with Site for a certain amount of time, and to give all of your energy to your role, take advantage of the support and experience of the organisation to become better at what you do, and leave a more rounded and able practitioner.

Judith made clear the importance of Stakeholder support and political will to allow for their expansion, and more holistically, for the City’s emergence as a cultural hub. Arts Council funding comes with a proviso that the City Council were also heavily invested. For this capital project, Sheffield Council gave their building, on a 25 year peppercorn lease, plus a significant sum towards match funding the project - along with a level of trust in the organisation to allow Site to get on and deliver a programme for themselves and the city. Crucially, throughout the process, The Arts Council and the City Council developed and maintained a close relationship - meeting regularly to assess progress, continued support for Site to ensure best practice through the project.

Also clear was the need for experience of Capital funding within the organisation. At the time of planning, Site had this experience on their board, through their Chair and also Claire Lilley - a Site Board Member and head of Programmes at Yorkshire Sculpture Park who have delivered multiple Capital projects. Also, Judith had been working on a capital project prior to her arrival in Sheffield. This experience allowed for a good start to the vision and approach to Arts Council - helping to get the pitch right, especially following the initial rejection, helping to shape the resubmission, and understand exactly what was being asked for and why. Following this, the Arts Council’s robust procedures at every stage offered the necessary framework for planning. Strategically, the employment of a freelance consultant at this early stage proved invaluable for advice.


On the surface, such a huge redevelopment and such large ambition might seem way beyond a small artist-led organisation like AirSpace - yet it was clear from talking with Judith Harry, that despite its longstanding, before the arrival of her and artistic director, Laura Sillars, in 2011, Site wasn’t a huge organisation - it was a small version/organisation of what had the potential to be a bigger institution. The thing that changed in the years prior to 2011, then was that the vision and ambition for what Site could potentially be, shifted - upwards - through a new Chair of the Board and strategic appointments.

Finally, a common theme emerged, as I heard how important the developing cultural infrastructure in the city is - a fraternal relationship of support between all of the city’s arts organisations and venues, built on communal activity such as the Arts Sheffield Festivals, which tests the strengths of those relationships, but ultimately forms lasting organisational bonds, and an understanding of each organisation’s value. Many of the city’s organisations have worked together on Catalyst consortium projects, and Ambition for Excellence projects.

And then also, the Culture Consortium of Sheffield - which is constituted of the directors of all the leading building-based arts organisations in the city - theatres, visual arts and museums and the 2 universities - working, strategically, collaboratively together for the good of the city - including a funded facilitation role by the City Council. Meeting regularly - 11 times a year, with 1 away day to bring in and deliver on city-wide funding and programming. Direct results of this collaborative activity has resulted in, amongst other things, an independent Arts-Education network, and a Creative Guild, for independent artists, designers and crafters.

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