sheffield view In South Yorkshire, the River Sheaf inspired the name of a city of steel, crossing through it and adding a touch of nature to its industrial heritage. Given a panoramic glance from afar, the city’s landscape communicates its rapid development with tall building, cranes and construction sites dotting the skyline but dig deeper and the surviving artistic spirit, rooted in its making history, arises. Home to over 552,600 people, 20,000 businesses and over 60,000 students, the UK’s Sheffield is transitioning to a creative economy, driven by its residents’ ambitions and its government’s support for local making.

Best known for its metal industries, Sheffield has a long and prosperous history with cutlery, which dates back to the 11th century with the first reference for the local manufacturing of silverware being a tax return filed by Robert the Cutler. “By 1624, the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire was founded by an Act of Parliament, amidst a thriving industry producing cutlery, edge tools and agricultural implements,” Sheffield City Council’s website reads, highlighting that the high-quality products were exported and introduced Sheffield to the world as an industrial city.

The city soon became an innovator in metalwork, including the invention of stainless steel, and led the landscape to be dotted with factories and warehouses. Though the city became prosperous through its local manufacturing, the heavy industry led to lauded British author  George Orwell to infamously dub Sheffield “the ugliest town in the Old World,” in the 1930s.

The city’s main industry came to an abrupt halt, however, in the 1970s and 80s, prompting the private sector and the government to think differently about what Sheffield needed to be, CEO of  charity organization Museums Sheffield, Kim Streets explains. She adds that the crisis, which the city later recovered from, opened the eyes of decision-makers to a different type of output.

“We have the solid history of making but there was a recognition that the future couldn’t be all about heavy industry,” Streets says. “The markets changed and the response to that was to have a collaborative approach to try and affect development.”

The initiative opened existing working sites to new industries, created new jobs and regenerated parts of Sheffield. Its most significant success, however, might have been that it signaled change and started a wave of public-private partnerships. The post-industrial character of the city kept its heritage at its core, despite the growing focus on a creative economy. The mentality of “making” remains very much embedded in Sheffield’s identity.

“We are very proud of that [making history] and we know that it is about quality and excellence,” Streets say. “There is a real understanding that people are making every day and austerity leads people to mine in their own creativity to make a living and support their families.”

Making the Most of Heritage

The Year of Making concept is life-proof of both the pride taken in manufacturing and the creative resilience of the city. The Year of Making Sheffield 2016 is led by Sheffield Culture Consortium, made up of University of Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam University, the City’s Chamber of Commerce, Made in Sheffield, the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire and Sheffield City Council.

“This is a unique opportunity to show that making is in the city’s DNA, ranging across advanced manufacturing to arts, music and theater,” the Year of Making website reads. “It’s not just about culture, it’s about how economic vibrancy comes in many forms.”

“It has been very welcomed,” Tamar Millen, event manager at the Year of Making says, highlighting that the city’s makers were on board with the project, which received a lot of media coverage. “People are creating their own events as well, which is what we wanted,” the city council representative continues.

Highlighting the importance of the city’s making heritage among today’s post-industrial population, Millen points to the story of Ernest Wright & Son – a historic scissor factory in Sheffield that was scheduled to produce its final hand-made pair before shutting its doors. The demise of this craft was chosen as the subject of a film, launched alongside a Kickstarter campaign. The short film quickly went viral and the crowdfunding campaign raised over GBP £250,000 in advance-orders and so, the factory continues creating today.

The Year of Making is also aiming to bring making tourism into the city. Millen states that the project has a cultural destinations program which “highlights the independent authenticity aspect of the city. It has [also] highlighted the festivals that we have in the city… It has worked really well.” Within six months, the Year of Making project might develop to become a city-wide branding strategy, the City of Makers, but the idea is still under-study.

Aside from the Year of Making project, the stereotypical, industrial idea of Sheffield can easily be replaced by a one of artistic innovation, as it is defined as one of UK’s leading music cities, hosting 465 active bands as well as 65 recording studios and 69 live venues as well as 788 organizations active in the music sector. It is the birthplace of a uniquely British indie sound, as solidified by the likes of Pulp, Arctic Monkeys and, more recently, Bring Me the Horizon. Kept buoyant by a large student population, the music scene goes hand-in-hand with with the city’s brewing heritage: Sheffield is home to one brewery for every 23,991 people; 4.7 times more brewers per capita than Greater London.

The city is also 19 studio groups or collectives of visual artists, providing a total of 498 studios to 362 artists. Among the main studios providers are Yorkshire Artspace, which is the largest in the city, the second largest provider CADS as well as S1 Artspace, Bloc Studios, KIAC, Bank Street Arts, the Harley Foundation and ROCCO, a brand new space which opened in late 2015. In total, Sheffield has more studio provision than its neighboring Leeds.

Given its big student base and the natural progression from heavy industry to technological innovation seen in many cities across the world, Sheffield has been fostering a growing tech and digital sector too. Electric Works is an example of government-supported space to empower creative, technology, digital and media companies. The space is managed by Creative Space Management, a company that runs about 300,000 square feet of space between Newcastle and Sheffield.

Toby Hyam, founder and managing director of Creative Space Management explains that Electric Works opened March 2009, when the city was hit by the worldwide economic crisis at the time. Now, the occupancy rate is around 98% and the creative serviced offices count everything from e-learning and analytics startups to video game developers and architecture firms among its tenants. Hyam states that, although the city has a lot of talent, many of those young professionals leave the city to work elsewhere. He explains that the though the city is liveable, walkable and vibrant, it is still not as competitive as London, Liverpool and Manchester.

On the other hand, Streets argues that, with two universities, the city intrinsically nurtures talent and that a little gets you a long way in Sheffield.  “We see people coming from London because you can get a beautiful house for a fraction of the capital’s prices,” she adds.

Can Makers Make a Living?

Sheffield public space

Even with restless efforts to allow the creativity of making to thrive, the vital questions remains; are arts and crafts a viable option to make a living? Streets says that “it depends on what they [the artists] are making. Very few artists make it and it is quite hard to make a living [from art].They usually have two or three other jobs in order to fund their own practice.”

According to the Art City report, which brought together a significant amount of local research data to reveal the scale of arts in Sheffield, the average price of a studio space is GBP £7.4 per square foot; with the highest being GBP £14 per square foot and the lowest being GBP £4 per square foot. In comparison, according to the 2014 Artists Workspace Study,  the average annual rent across the main studio providers in London is GBP £13.73 per square foot.

To make money, artists take part in annual makers fairs and exhbitions that host them for a participation fee such as Open Up Sheffield (OUS), an open studios event running in the city since 1998, and Art in the Gardens (AitG), an annual art market that takes place in Sheffield’s Botanical Gardens. Artists also exhibit their work at Cupola Contemporary Art (CCA), a gallery established in 1991 by the city’s local Karen Sherwood. CCA currently stocks over 300 local, regional, national and international artists.

“Cupola has built its customer base and reputation over a 24 year period. It has gained more financial stability in each year of operation,” Art City adds, highlighting that the gallery sold over GBP £2 million worth of artwork in 2015.

Despite having an outlet to sell their work, artists and makers can still end up spending more money on their craft than they make from it. “Art in the Gardens and Open Up Sheffield host events where artists are responsible for selling their own work,” Art City reads. “Without commission but they do of course pay to participate… Some artists will effectively end up paying more in fees than they earn from sales if they don’t sell enough.”

The city still has a long way to go. According to Millen, there is still no data available on how much making economically impacts Sheffield. Part of the Year of Making project was about learning where artists can sell their products in various markets outside of the Sheffield, as well assessing the needs of the creative community. “That is the whole point of the Year of Making,” Millen says. “It was to tackle things that need tackling and that’s what we will be doing in the next two years.”

Making a Mark: Shaping a New Sheffield
sheffield winter garden art exhibition

According to some artists in the city, Sheffield’s creative scene is a “supportive community” that offers great locations with an affordable life.  Some of Art City’s survey respondents stated that the city creates “strong network lines” and encourages “community feel.” Another mentioned that “there are still collaborative opportunities available to artists that are not inaccessible or contrived.”

Streets says that Museums Sheffield is looking for ways to support artists so that they can flourish and this is immediately noticeable when visiting any of the three facilities the organization oversees. The most recent addition is the Millennium Gallery, opened in 2001, which was part of the Sheffield’s GBP £120 million The Heart of the City redevelopment project. As its name suggest, the governmental project was designed to revitalize Sheffield’s city center, adding cultural outlets and refurbishing others, as well as creating a walkable series of plazas and public spaces.

During the Year of Making, the Millennium Gallery highlighted local arts and crafts, stocking prints, maps, pencils and pens as well as some clothing, jewelry, plates and furniture that are all locally manufactured. Shaping the physical landscape around cultural commodities, the Heart of the City project also gave birth to the Sheffield Winter Garden – the UK’s largest indoor garden, inaugurated by the Queen herself – which is free to enter and connects directly to the Millennium Gallery.

Building and redeveloping to put creative industries at the core of the city’s economy and lifestyle is also a recommendation of the Art City report: “Wider, better and more experimental use of buildings before they are sold off and perhaps instead of being sold off; more help across the arts sector rather than just flagship projects; and most of all a reciprocity of the feeling that visual arts matter for the city in the same way that the city matters to visual artists.”

While Electric Works is already doing this, across the street from it stands the largest listed building in Europe with 2,200 apartments. Park Hill  was largely abandoned which led to crime and drug dealing and resulted in a poor reputation for the neighborhood despite its green vistas. “In the last year, a whole new wave of people have moved in those apartments,” Hyam says about the complex’s recent refurbishment. “There are old people, young families, single people and couples. They have recognized that the city center is a great environment.”

A new team of architects are handling the project’s development, Hyam highlights, adding that an art gallery and studio space will also be developed. While Sheffield might not have fully shaken off its reputation as a brutalist, industrial landscape, it is these very characteristics that are propelling its standing as a creative hub today as heritage-driven cultural output is championed by the city and its citizens alike.


The #CreativeCitiesUK editorial project was made possible with the support of:

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