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Pineapple Black: Collaboration not competition at the gallery that’s accessible to everyone

Pineapple Black in Middlesbrough is a truly accessible and inclusive art space

Collaboration, not competition.

It could almost be the slogan for how artists and cultural venues work together in Middlesbrough.

It’s a theme explored at length during a conversation held in a giant gallery space in central Middlesbrough, surrounded by the incredibly detailed and colourful paintings of Martin Smith and the angular data-inspired sculptures of Cameron Lings.

We’re inside Pineapple Black – one of the most accessible and inclusive art venues in the town and, dare I say, much further afield.

The size and scale of the space is thanks to its former use, a New Look clothes shop – its upstairs stock room now repurposed as artist studios, the mirrored former fitting rooms and window display separate galleries themselves.

Stephen Irving, who runs and curates Pineapple Black alongside fellow artist Bobby Benjamin, has welcomed We are Middlesbrough and Middlesbrough Council’s Head of Culture Charlotte Nicol in to discuss the gallery and the town’s arts and cultural scene, shortly after Middlesbrough’s Cultural Investment Prospectus was launched.

The prospectus shows off how organisations like the council and MIMA, to artist led collectives and cultural venues, are working together under the banner of the Middlesbrough Cultural Partnership.

Its ambition is make Middlesbrough the most creative town in the UK and details multi-million pound investments into cultural projects including Central Library, the railway station and The Auxiliary.

Charlotte said: “It’s very unusual to have something like this, which links together big organisations and independent artists and venues on the ground.

“But it’s a really good thing to demonstrate what’s unique about Middlesbrough – how we all work together.

“We hope it has a massive impact.”

Charlotte Nicol, Middlesbrough Council's head of culture

Charlotte Nicol, Middlesbrough Council’s head of culture

While the prospectus details how culture in Middlesbrough will emerge from the pandemic and blossom in the future, we must rewind four years to 2018 to tell the story of how Pineapple Black began.

It began with a pop-up at the Middlesbrough Art Weekender in 2018, a meeting in the Southfield pub, and the chance to move into the recently closed clothes shop at the Hillstreet Shopping Centre.

They were given the keys in November that year, and Pineapple Black officially opened in January 2019.

Apart from Covid enforced closures, the pair have put on a new exhibition every six weeks – four weeks for the show, and a fortnight to remove artwork and install more.

It has strong connections to local graduates and staff at Teesside University and the Northern School of Art, and aims to act as a buffer zone for artists coming out of education like the Newbridge project in Newcastle.

“It can be a big, scary space,” Stephen laughs.

“Every time we take it all down, we see the size of it and we always worry whether we’ll have enough work from the next exhibition to fill it.

“But of course we always do.”

Stephen Irving, one of the two artists and curators behind Pineapple Black

Stephen Irving, one of the two artists and curators behind Pineapple Black

The gallery’s exhibition openings are an event in themselves and often feature bands, poets and dancers – regularly attracting 150 people, a mix of regulars, students, and those new to the gallery.

“A lot of galleries will advertise a ‘private opening’ – it’s open to the public, but just using that sort of wording can exclude people,” he continued.

Charlotte said: “I think Pineapple Black is quite a radical space in Middlesbrough.

“It’s one of my favourite spaces because it changes so often, Stephen and Bobby can make something happen so quickly.

“Their openings attract so many people – they’re an event in themselves. And every time, they’re introducing someone new to art.”

Pineapple Black’s unique approach and position in a shopping centre undoubtedly adds to its accessible appeal.

You’ll often find Stephen and Bobby welcoming visitors and chatting with them about the art, asking what they think about it.

“There are different galleries with different ways of doing things – but here, people can see what’s going on from the outside,” continued Stephen.

He laughs: “After the pandemic, we would joke that we would get the men dropped off here while the wives were in Primark.

“Our favourite was a group of teenagers that came in. They were lads full of bravado, as you can imagine. But one of them – the most confident, probably their little leader – was into art.

“He told the others to go and play darts in the corner while he went round and looked at the art.

“He came back the next week with his mates. Then he came back the next week on his own and showed us some of his drawings. That was awesome.

“I like how people can stumble across us.”

But the collaboration with other artists and spaces is just as important.

“There’s quite a lot going on in Middlesbrough, that some people might be surprised about,” said Stephen.

“But we’re friends with pretty much everyone – we’d never schedule an opening to compete with somewhere like The Auxiliary, for example.

“If it happens, we’ll stagger our opening times so that people can go to both. We wouldn’t want to miss out on seeing some art either, so it makes sense for us too!

“But it actually helps create a really strong community – people will go from one place to another together, people get to know each other. It’s friendly, and welcoming too, I think.”

Stephen Irving, from Pineapple Black, and Charlotte Nicol

Stephen Irving, from Pineapple Black, and Charlotte Nicol

Charlotte agrees.

“Again, it’s something really unusual, and – I can’t stress enough – something that is really special in Middlesbrough.

“I’ve never come across it anywhere else I’ve been involved with. It just doesn’t really happen elsewhere.

“It just shows that art and culture are for everyone in Middlesbrough.”

We are words: Mike Brown