Helen Legg is well qualified for her role as one of the guiding lights of Bristol’s visual arts scene. Before arriving in the southwest, the Wolverhampton-born curator spent five years at Birmingham’s world-famous Ikon gallery and was on the judging panel for the 2014 Turner Prize. Since 2010, though, Legg has had her hand on the tiller at one of Bristol’s most exciting art spaces: Spike Island.
In the late-’90s, a former tea-packing factory on the banks of the Avon was turned, by hook or by crook, into an artist-led studio space. It’s since evolved into a major creative organisation that houses Bristol’s most exciting artists, plus architects, designers, filmmakers and other maverick doers. And as Spike Island director, Legg gets to flex her curatorial chops by filling its studios and ensuring it continues to nurture Bristol creativity.
“We only accept creative tenants,” she explains. “When there’s space we advertise it and look who wants to come in. We try choosing the right people to fit and how we do that is a bit of a fine art. We want a unique ecology – a mix of different people with different skills. People who are open-minded and experimental.”
Providing workspace for these up-and-coming artists and creative commercial enterprises is only part of the story. Spike Island goes to great lengths to support its chosen creative minds. “We offer a sort of mouth-to-tail service,” laughs Legg, who has a team of people keeping tabs on artists – locally, nationally, even internationally – who are ready for their first big shows and commissions. And that “tail” Legg mentions can be as long as artists need it to be. “We give them technical and curatorial support,” she says. “We also try to find international partners, so we’ll go out and find curators around the world who might take the exhibition on. We’ll promote the project, get critics in to review it, and then our technical team will look at how to install the exhibition elsewhere.”
As a respected international platform, Spike Island is giving the local scene a not inconsiderable leg-up. “We collaborate outside of Bristol as much as we collaborate in it,” says Legg, citing their work with Art Basel Miami. But without Bristol’s unique make-up, it might all be for nothing. It’s small and affordable enough, says Legg, to encourage the spread of ever-bolder ideas. “You can always find someone in Bristol who knows how to do the thing you need,” says Legg. “These hubs of creativity, like Spike Island and Watershed, facilitate conversations.”
After seven years in the city, Legg’s excitement about Bristol art hasn’t dimmed. She hails Theaster Gates’ recent Sanctum project and Spike Island Open Studios, when, every May bank holiday weekend, they open their doors: “Thousands come in – and thousands who aren’t your typical contemporary arts fan.”