Art / east bristol contemporary

A chat with East Bristol Contemporary

By steve wright, Friday Feb 22, 2019

Pictured above: artwork by Hannah Ní Mhaonaigh and Émile Xavier Crowther

“I reckon we’ve worked with over 200 artists in one way or another over the past three years…”

This is Jack Lewdjaw, co-director of arts collective East Bristol Contemporary (EBC), who since 2016 have invigorated the Bristol art landscape, and provided opportunities for artists who otherwise, given Bristol’s well-known shortage of spaces, might have struggled to get their work seen.

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EBC began through a long-term relationship with Trinity, Old Market/Easton’s busy community and live events venue, and now inhabits an upstairs room in the former church, complete with stained glass windows and impressive vaulted ceiling.

Since opening, the gallery has staged 20 exhibitions, usually small group shows held over the course of a weekend. But this is far from all that Jack and co. have been up to: they’ve also run a graduate award and produced off-site exhibitions, film screenings, publications (including RUNG, their in-house sister publication), community workshops and a residency in a former office block, as well as managing an ongoing Instagram residency and visits to other organisations to give talks, meet artists and lead workshops.

Jack and co-founder Karanjit Panesar are busy boys, in short. And there is a clear vision behind all this activity. “We wanted to counteract the lack of established showing spaces for grassroots contemporary artists in Bristol, and to establish a unique and diverse programme of exhibitions and events, as well as supporting artists based in the south-west,” Karanjit enthuses. “For two years we were the only non-commercial, artist-led gallery producing a regular programme in the city.”

East Bristol Contemporary’s Jack Lewdjaw and Karanjit Panesar (sitting top) with (l-r) artists Ruaidhri Ryan, Molly Goldwater and Katrina Cowling

Helping to bring on artists early in their career, and/or getting artists’ work seen away from their hometown audience, are both key to the EBC ethos. “We work with many different artists from all over the UK and further afield, often within the first ten years of their career, bringing their artworks to new audiences in the city; often for the first time,” Jack explains.

“We also really value being able to pay them. We pay our invigilators too, unlike some major art institutions!” Karanjit jumps in: “Which is why getting funding, first from Bristol City Council and then from the Arts Council, was crucial to keeping our work going.”

One of East Bristol Contemporary’s ever-intriguing monthly exhibitions – this one featured artworks by Ben Urban, Ellie Pearch, Maria De La O Garrido and Steph Dutton

Another major strand of EBC’s work is their Night School, hosted by Arnolfini, whose next term starts soon. “The Night School is a six-week course where students get to hear from artists and take part in a workshop that leads on from their practice,” Karanjit explains excitedly. “There are also opportunities to get one-to-one advice on their own work.”

EBC have seen the grassroots arts scene change during their three years here. Jack: “It’s great to see some other artist spaces springing up in the city more recently – Caraboo Projects in Bedminster comes to mind. Before that, other than the big institutions like Spike Island, there’s been very little else happening.”

Karanjit: “Bristol is not an easy city to be an artist in. There is loads of studio provision here – of varying quality and price – but an underfunded Council arts team, a lack of visual art strategy for the city, and the extortionate rental market are big factors in holding back the scene. That’s evident with what’s happened to the likes of Hamilton House and the Brunswick Club.”

“For a city that sells itself on culture, it sure is difficult to be an artist here,” Jack concludes.

That’s a reality that East Bristol Contemporary are doing their bit to change.

For more East Bristol Contemporary exhibitions and night school dates, and to join the EBC mailing list, visit eastbristolcontemporary.com

Read more: Artist of the Month: Elaine Jones

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