Vicky Holbrough, with fellow directors James Lowther and Nicola Golightly, is at the forefront of Middlesbrough’s art scene
Artist-led organisation Navigator North has made Dundas House, in the centre of Middlesbrough, its home for the past eleven years.
But it’s an iconic town building, the former Masham pub, which has seen Navigator North make the leap onto the high street.
Focusing on socially engaged art, a spotlight on heritage has seen its debut exhibitions showcase some of the town’s forgotten gems.
“Our new presence at The Masham has encouraged local people to engage with art whilst they shop,” said Vicky.
“We have always been passionate about using alternative venues to make it less daunting for people to access visual art pieces, compared to a traditional gallery.
“It’s all about changing perceptions. Art is for everyone, especially during times of austerity such as the Covid-19 pandemic, as taking part in art and creative practices can have a positive impact for health and wellbeing.”
Vicky said that the reaction from the public had been “fantastic”.
She continued: “Since opening in June, local people from all walks of life have being coming in and sharing their stories of The Masham, we’ve even seen some wedding reception photos of when it was a pub.
“Historically, The Masham has also been a place where people gathered to talk. Our exhibitions have further encouraged that tradition.”
As part of the Celebrating Hidden Middlesbrough programme, The Masham hosted an exhibition which shone a light on the town’s Exchange Square, which featured artefacts that had been hidden in storage for over 40 years.
One of those was an original decorative stone from the Exchange Building, knocked down to make way for the A66 decades ago, which features the town’s coat of arms.
Proving popular with the public, Vicky said she has definitely seen an expanding interest in art during the past decade in Middlesbrough.
And since 2010, Navigator North have also witnessed a growing demand from the local community for studios across the region, with Middlesbrough being a central hub.
“Our Dundas House headquarters is home to a wide variety of artist disciplines, from film makers to painters. The studios have definitely encouraged a large amount of collaborative working,” said Vicky, who is from a print and sculpture based background.
The pandemic has seen that collaborative working expand even further, broadcasting Middlesbrough based artists onto a worldwide stage.
The Tunnel Gallery, which is led and programmed by four of Middlesbrough’s independent artist organisations including Navigator North, has expanded from its original location at Middlesbrough Railway Station to billboards located under the A66 road bridge on Albert Road.
During lockdown, the gallery headed online, where a number of exhibitions by local artists took place.
“The virtual gallery was a resounding success for our artists, as it put their work on the map to a global audience, as it could be viewed anywhere in the world with an internet connection,” Vicky continued.
“A particular highlight was family portraits captured of members of the Middlesbrough Motorcycle Action Group.
“We also wanted to ensure that Middlesbrough based artists still had a career during the pandemic and turned online to deliver sessions on profile raising and marketing to ensure that our local artist network continues to thrive.”
The Masham continues to be at the centre of Navigator North’s work over coming months, with a number of heritage based exhibitions planned for 2022.
“Our historical exhibitions will be our focus for the next year, as people in Middlesbrough are proud of their heritage and always want to speak about it.”
Celebrating Hidden Middlesbrough and The Tunnel Gallery uncover the hidden histories, people and places of Middlesbrough and find creative ways to celebrate them.
The project is led by Navigator North and funded by Historic England’s High Street Heritage Action Zones initiative and Middlesbrough Council as part of the town’s wider HSHAZ programme.
We are words: Grace Lancaster.
We are pictures: Mike Brown