The Auxiliary is at the centre of Middlesbrough's thriving arts scene
Nestled between the noisy A66 and tracks taking trains in and out of town sits possibly the coolest place in Middlesbrough most people have never been to.
From the outside, The Auxiliary is nothing particularly special.
Inside, the former carpet warehouse and adjoining masonry building have been transformed into an Aladdin’s cave of creativity, intrigue and spark.
The main gallery hosts exhibitions by established and emerging talent. The 15 studios next door are melting pots for artists of all kinds.
The Auxiliary project space is used by sculptures, ceramicists, photographers and painters. Bands practice. Ideas are born. There’s a buzz within the exposed brickwork that’s in keeping with the near constant low level racket from the rails and road outside.
Directors Anna Byrne and Liam Slevin are showing We are Middlesbrough around shortly after a major funding announcement.
The Auxiliary was awarded almost £1m from the Cultural Development Fund as part of an overall £4.5m successful bid led by the Middlesbrough Cultural Partnership.
The investment will help the venue attract and better cater for extra visitors while helping to launch the careers of many more homegrown creatives and boost the local economy.
A recce that led to roots being put down
Anna and Liam arrived on Teesside in 2016 via Berlin, Detroit and their Irish homeland. Looking for a new project and persuaded to do a recce by Anna’s brother, the couple originally planned to stay six months.
Six years later they’re raising their three-year-old son, Fiach, here and are a key part of a local arts scene that’s crafting new perceptions of Middlesbrough around the UK and further afield.
Anna, 38, a writer close to completing her first novel, explains how they were first hooked on this area.
Liam Slevin and Anna Byrne at The Auxiliary
“We were living in Berlin and looking to open up an arts space or residency. I have a brother over here and he said ‘come over, have a look’.
“I just thought we were going to drink coffee for six months and talk about what we were going to do but everything just started falling into place.
“Initially we took a space in Stockton. A big old townhouse. We started running international residencies and we had about 30 artists come and stay with us. We were really attracted to the area and the landscape, particularly the post-industrial landscape.
“The big thing about being here is about how welcoming the artist community in general was. We just started knocking on doors at places like MIMA, House of Blah, Blah and Navigator North.
“People are doing things here because they care. They care about the place and they care about the work they’re doing. It was the welcome we got here that blew us away.”
‘Bold, brilliant art being made on Teesside’
Liam, who specialises in sound-based installations and sculptures, remembers the first Stockton show well.
“We had our very first event on the day that Middlesbrough got promoted to the Premier League [in May 2016]. We had about 15 or 20 people early doors and we thought ‘this is amazing, people have come…’ and then the match was over and another 15-20 people arrived and they were very excited to be at the exhibition, let’s say!”
Although based in Stockton, Anna and Liam soon found themselves busier and busier in Middlesbrough.
Anna says: “The first Art Weekender was in 2017 [the couple still curate the annual festival]. We had very little time to prepare but we pulled it off and it was really, really good.
“What people talked about then was the different perception of Middlesbrough. We did a lot of work in Albert Road North and there was feeling that you could be anywhere.
“People were really excited. From the start we knew we wanted a mix of really established artists and also emerging artists. We wanted to show that bold, brilliant contemporary art was being made on Teesside.”
Anna and Liam discovered the warehouse on Station Street that would become The Auxiliary’s headquarters the following year.
“We came in here, it was an old carpet and windows warehouse and we thought, ‘this is where we need to be’,” Anna says.
A ‘mini Berlin-ification’ of the Boro
First impressions of the warehouse interior are still striking.
Combined with edgy, underground venues like Base Camp and bars inspired by the continent such as Albert Road’s Bier and Beer, The Auxiliary can count itself as part of a mini Berlin-ification of the Boro.
Just a short stroll from the stunning new Northern School of Art in the town centre, it is also well-placed to help inspire and hone talent from around Teesside.
Having lived and worked in renowned creative vibes including the German capital and Detroit, The Auxiliary wears its influences on its sleeve and is keen to build more international links. Artists are being both exported and imported, while discussions are taking place about a placement scheme for Polish students.
“Detroit had a big impact on us,” Liam, 37, says.
“We went to a residency and spent six weeks working there as artists. Our hosts had a young family, a warehouse, a community garden.
“There was this whole network around them.
“We went back to Berlin and thought maybe we should try that in Berlin but financially that wasn’t really possible.”
Michael James McCormack’s work on display at The Auxiliary
Once they were getting to know people in Middlesbrough, the couple found strong support at the council and the Arts Council.
“Charlotte Nicol and Michelle McPhee from the council were massively supportive,” Anna says.
“There was a big drive to be here. Our relationships manager at the Arts Council was great and we got some funding to take this space.
“We spoke to lots of artists and asked them what they wanted. That’s why the tool library is there, for instance. The artists have a committee so they run their own shows in the gallery as well.”
Liam is asked to sum up the essence of The Auxiliary and some of the human characteristics of Middlesbrough that are helping to make the project space a success.
“Openness,” he says.
“A warmth. There’s a curiosity. People are supportive, nurturing. People are really keen for things to be happening.
“As an organisation I think we’ve been quite good at changing and adapting. We started off with the residency and we moved over here as a venue and now we’ve very much become a studio alongside the venue.
“By nature we’re always thinking. We’re a couple so that conversation is almost 24/7, if there’s a decision to be made it could be at 11 o’clock at night or 7 in the morning. It’s a constant conversation.”
Those conversations over the past couple of years turned to the future.
With the recent funding secured, Anna and Liam are working up a 10-year strategy for The Auxiliary alongside fellow directors Paul Harrington and Kypros Kyprianou. They’re applying for National Portfolio Organisation status via the Arts Council which would allow them to grow the team and be more secure over a longer term.
‘Playground for architects’
“The funding is a massive deal for us,” Anna says.
“It’s transformational. To have the money to renovate the building is incredible. We can insulate the place, make it warm and dry. We can have more studio space and bring up our revenues to make ourselves sustainable.”
Plans are in motion to create a mini sculpture garden on land next to the warehouse, a space that would allow children to work on their own pieces.
The warehouse, Liam says, has proven to be a “playground for architects”.
Inside The Auxiliary’s gallery space
“Getting to work with an architect and imagining what this space could become in its ultimate form has been great.
“Regional artists want to make bigger work. We’ll still have a communal space and then have a mezzanine. We’ll have a space that people can hire out as a venue.
“It will open us up to more touring work and make the building more accessible.”
Paramount to the plan is retaining the venue’s vibe.
“Our aesthetic for the building is still very much that it will have the big beams upstairs and the brickwork,” Anna says.
“These were the things that drew us to the space. We still want it to feel raw. We want to keep the ethos that is here.
“We’ve had lots of artists who’ve come here, particularly from elsewhere in England, and they know Middlesbrough for one or two things before they arrive and then they come here and they’re really excited by what’s happening here
“People in Middlesbrough can see what’s happening and the potential that’s here. Egos are left to the side, there’s no pretention and I think that’s a major part of why people are drawn to it.”
With a commitment to collaboration and serving the communities of Teesside, The Auxiliary is a Middlesbrough masterpiece in the making.
We are words by Andrew Glover.
Main image by Rachel Deakin.