Featured image: Bradley Sansom & Joe Walby
Past the supersize ASDA, blocked university halls and corner shops in Hulme lies an unlikely hub of avant-garde visual art: Venture Arts. Inside is fertile ground for some of the most bold and creative contemporary art in the country. It’s an award-winning, ground-breaking charity which empowers people with learning difficulties to become fully developed artists.
The charity’s work was recently recognised and rewarded by Manchester City Council, with Venture Arts being included in a new £939,982 grant package, awarded over the next three years to twelve of the city’s arts organisations.
Inside, the main studio has two large wooden tables with artists sitting around each side. During the excitement and activity of the morning’s workshop, one unassuming artist works away quietly.
His name is Leslie Thompson. “He’s probably one of our most successful artists. He is very quiet. I think his expression is entirely through painting and drawing,” says Venture Arts Director Amanda Sutton.
Leslie blends in and mainly keeps to himself, wearing an aptly patterned camouflage fleece. But his art is bold, original and breath-taking. Thanks to Venture Arts, he has been able to professionally exhibit work all over the UK, and even in Japan.
One of his large-scale drawings, Animals from Memory, was acquired by the Government Art Collection to be displayed in government offices around the world, Amanda shares with pride. It features dozens and dozens of animals drawn based on one visit to Chester Zoo thirty years ago. Today he works in sculpture, moulding a small grizzly bear out of recycled clay from other artists’ projects.
Venture’s work empowering their artists is driven by their brilliant art facilitator system. Their aim is to get the best out of the artists’ instincts without hindering them. For this to work, the hierarchy has to be flat: this is not a teacher-student relationship but not necessarily a collaboration either.
78-year-old Violet has been working with volunteer art facilitator Morr each week for the past four months on abstract textile compositions. I notice how Morr works with Violet by simply making observations and asking questions. She never steers the direction of the piece by providing answers. “It’s entirely Violet’s work,” she says.
Art facilitator, Ali, has been volunteering since before the pandemic. He explains: “It’s a forum for people who wouldn’t normally be able to express themselves. It’s giving value to people’s ideas. I feel like I’ve developed as a person, just by coming in and volunteering.”
But it wasn’t always like this. 15 years ago, Venture Arts was a standard community arts organisation, where members would come for the day to work on the same projects each week under tutelage and supervision. No professional development, no tangible ambition. But gradually, their director, Amanda Sutton, and Artistic Manager, Katherine Long, transformed Venture Arts into a forward-thinking development studio which nurtures learning disabled artists’ individual visions.
“Their ideas come from completely within themselves. It’s authentic. It feels really true. I think that’s why so many people are really appreciating this kind of work,” says Amanda. “Where we start from is that when people are recognised in the arts, that then transfers into social justice and things like that. Learning disabled people have been marginalised, left behind, ghettoised and bullied for years. Up until the seventies or eighties, most people would’ve been locked up in institutions and left there. It’s about respect. We respect and value all the people that come here. It’s about ambition too, we’ve got real ambition for our artists.”
This ambition seems to be working wonders. Venture Arts have had countless exhibitions across the UK and the world, including at the 2022 Venice Biennale, at the TJ Boulting Gallery in Fitzrovia and recently close to home at the Lowry in Manchester. Promoting their artists’ work like this, as well as selling and commissioning pieces, means that a fulfilling career in art is a real possibility for all their artists.
Having such high professional ambitions for their artists presents a difficult position for the identity of Venture Arts. Getting the balance right between being seen as professional in the world of high art, while also acting as a charity which needs support and funding. It’s oxymoronic and paradoxical all at the same time. Their marketing and communications lead Debbie Cowley explains: “We don’t talk about their disabilities a lot. They are artists in their own right. At the same time we are a charity, we want supporters, we do need to raise more. Without the context that these people are learning disabled, you’re missing out in terms of getting support. It is part of the picture.”
“It causes constant dialogue within our organisation,” Amanda says. “I’m really fighting strongly not to do the ‘Please give us some money to help these poor people.’ It’s more asset based. It is very difficult to get the tone right.”
And in terms of thriving professionally in the world of high art, Debbie says it’s a case of Venture Arts leading by example: “Once people have actually had the experience of working with us, they’re always really amazed by how capable our artists are. But before they’ve had that experience, they naturally make assumptions.”
Venture Arts is slowly teaching people to value the ideas of learning-disabled people in the same way they do. This change of perspective has immense potential for the way that people with disabilities are seen in culture and society. If you can be moved by their art like you can be moved by anyone else’s, maybe they aren’t so different to you?
In order to promote their positive social message more widely, growth is needed. “We want to work more internationally, and we would like another space. We can’t move in this space,” Amanda explains. A larger studio is needed to work on more projects and bring in new artists without losing any current members.
“We only cater to a group of people who are from mainly central-south Manchester. What about all that other talent out there?” The difficulty in relocating comes in the form of accessibility, affordability and community. The idea of Venture Arts abandoning Hulme is not even close to being on the table.
Amanda sums up: “I love art. I’ve always loved art. You know that everything you’re doing is for a really good social purpose. I’m not here to make my million. No one working in the arts ever will be. But if I can make some small difference in some way, then that will be a great thing. It’s exciting, there’s so much to do, there’s so much potential. It’s never ending really.”
Follow @venturearts_ and visit venturearts.org