From FACT to Castelfield Gallery, Helen Wewiora takes us through the steps of her career in contemporary art.
Director, Castlefield Gallery | Agency (2017 - present)
I applied to the Director post because I passionately believed in Castlefield Gallery – in particular its mission to nurture talent, explore cultural trends and deepen audiences’ relationship to contemporary art.
The organisation’s role in Manchester was also a major driver. I was born and raised in the city and am a firm supporter of its creative talent, and that of surrounding areas. This creativity – its ambition – requires fuelling. It’s important work, and to do it the artist infrastructure requires attention, which Castlefield Gallery pays in buckets.
Castlefield Gallery is much greater than the sum of its parts and this role has been a definite case of hitting the ground running. Just three weeks in, I had put in place our future programme to 2019 and submitted our National Portfolio Organisation application for 2018-22. Now, four months later, we’ve launched three gallery showcases, opened new artist spaces around Greater Manchester, prepared to open other artists spaces around the North West, celebrated an ambitious public realm work, grown our higher education partnerships, and set up international residency activity.
The task ahead at Castlefield Gallery is to lead and deliver its next phase, ensuring the right scale and pace of growth. The company’s fleet and flat nature, and its open doors, are part of its magic and enable it to be effective in delivering its mission. Striking the right balance is critical.
The Director opportunity felt right to apply to, and being here feels right – like I’ve arrived home. This is something I often hear artists and audiences say about Castlefield Gallery, and certainly something I feel proud of, so I am now very excited and privileged to lead the organisation.
Co-Director, wewioraprojects (2013 - 2017)
After a little wrangling, some clever and effective mentoring, and a few direct and well-meant words from a long-term client, I found clarity about my approach to work: focus on what really inspires you, what you love, and be proactive in bringing about change for yourself. So, in 2013, in collaboration with artist / curator Elizabeth Wewiora (and yes, sister), I established wewioraprojects.
Over the past four years the company has grown beyond initial expectations, delivering events in and around the North West and nationally. It has evolved into a busy commissioning and producing agency and is especially focused on enabling new work and ideas to flourish. The programme reaches into outdoor, community and heritage settings, tours, and has long-term relationships with over 60s in social housing.
Elizabeth is now taking the agency forward, collaborating with associates. I am immensely proud of what we have achieved, and will miss it dearly, but I am much reassured to be able to watch it continue to grow from afar.
Arts Council England (2007 - 2016)
I had two main roles at Arts Council England (ACE), moving from Visual Arts Officer to Relationship Manager, Visual Arts in 2010. Two restructures and another maternity later, I can hardly believe I was with ACE for nine years!
Working for ACE provides you with an excellent overview of the creative and cultural sector and grows your networks exponentially. Whilst there I developed meaningful relationships with many of my clients, which was rewarding.
I certainly learnt to embrace change. The many and ranging demands put upon you at ACE encourage you to think strategically, honing your ability to make informed decisions. The learning opportunity is almost unrivalled.
It’s hard to move on from ACE. This was especially so when I knew that leadership was a logical next step, yet I was wrestling with a draw back to programming and to work at the coalface, more directly with artists.
Media Curator, Cornerhouse (2006 - 2007)
Returning to work after a maternity period can be tough, but in a fast-changing sector I felt I needed to get back to work, and even more so in a context that would challenge me.
As Media Curator I led the company’s work with the BBC ‘Big Screen’ network, gallery and inter-departmental ‘media arts’ programming. I re-visioned the outdoor programme, drawing upon its strengths to sharpen the artistic policy and establish clearer programming strands with better connectivity to Cornerhouse’s main programme. Change required careful handling of multi-stakeholder expectations and the post enabled me to develop strategic and negotiation skills.
The experience was exhilarating, and the drive to raise artistic standards and widen strategic partnerships paid off. In just a short time I delivered the screens’ first national tour, international commissioning, and I was part of the team that secured the Urban Screens Conference coming to Manchester.
Foundation for Art & Creative Technology (FACT) (2003 - 2005)
At FACT you were actively encouraged to try new things, and individualism was very much valued.
With a thirst for learning, I progressed quickly through the organisation. Three years in, after joining in a temporary post, I was Exhibition and Commissions Programme Manager. This was my first ‘proper’ job and where I cut my teeth following a period studying for an MA at the Courtauld Institute whilst undertaking freelance roles.
FACT was a high-octane environment. The camaraderie and the team’s high standards and passion for its work were infectious. Its leadership was very much behind this, and I took vital lessons with me from my time there. The importance of a clear vision and getting people behind it, trusting your staff to do their job, and the fact that there’s always something to learn, are just a few of those lessons. I left to have a baby and I look back on my time there with an unapologetic nostalgia.
Helen Wewiora is Director for Castlefield Gallery | Agency.