As I pushed the door open to the Art of Protest Gallery, an urban contemporary art gallery which finds itself at the heart of York’s bustling city centre, I found I’d walked into a hive of activity. The gallery had just received a delivery of new art pieces, and there was a buzz of excitement throughout the building. Among the friendly hellos and introductions to friends of the gallery, the cups of black coffee and opinions shared on the new pieces, I found a moment to speak to the owner.
Jeff Clark’s vision for the Art of Protest Gallery is clear: opened in 2016 with business partner Craig Humble, the duo aimed to rectify the underserving of contemporary art in the North of England. Having considered areas such as Leeds, Harrogate and Newcastle, the team were unable to resist the cultural and historic appeal unique to York. Clark was determined to make the gallery part of the lifestyle of York, choosing Little Stonegate to set up his gallery, a street bustling with bars and restaurants.
He explained how the street is essential to spreading the word about the gallery; “naturally people will stumble across us”, and Clark aims to “convert” those who do stumble upon the Art of Protest Gallery, engaging them in conversation about the artwork they exhibit. With 6.9m tourists taking to the streets of the city every year, the gallery has no shortage of potential visitors.
Clark explained to me the reason why they want to bring more people into the gallery: “the people who love us…they go find the art and we’re there for them, but what about the people who wander about aimlessly…what if they stumbled upon us and actually had the chance to look at something, to look at politically and socially relevant artwork? We can then indulge them in a conversation, because artwork doesn’t explain itself, and that’s what we’re there to do, to lubricate and bring it to life.”
It is clear that the owners have big dreams for the gallery, their social motives just as strong as their artistic influences. The social commentary and conversation which they of-fer undoubtedly sets them apart from other galleries in the area. Modern art is necessary within the culture of a city, adding a new dynamic to the existing ‘fine art and landscapes’ that are common throughout the city of York. He tells me about the way in which he wants to broaden the artistic horizons of the city, noting how many people in the area struggle to name any urban artists aside from Banksy.
Artwork doesn’t explain itself, and that’s what we’re there to do, to lubricate and bring it to life
The artists he chooses to exhibit clearly at-tempt to rectify such a gap in public knowledge, with artists such as Joe Iurato and Ludo, both active public artists offering a new perspective on urban art.
The uniqueness and intelligence of the gallery has earned it well-deserved coverage in the media. This December, Jeff and the gallery took part in a pop-up exhibition in Shoreditch along with other galleries which aim to put urban art at the forefront of the art world. In the 12 months since they opened, the world has started to take notice of the Art of Protest Gallery, with their work being recognised in London, New York and Montreal. It is this international appeal that Jeff is so proud of. He tells me about artist Laurence Vallières whose art was introduced to the North of England through Hull City of Culture, before bringing an exhibition to York and the Art of Protest Gallery. Her artwork, sculptures using the medium of cardboard, is “intended to echo the notions of the imperma-nence and fragility of nature”.
Jeff recalls the event the gallery put on to celebrate the work of Vallières, hosting people who ranged from the press to the “chin stroking academics”. That is what the gallery aims to do: offer a celebration of all art. Jeff ’s door is open to all, accepting submissions from any artists, he himself claiming to be constantly prepared to be wowed by a new and emerging talent. His determination to ensure that his art is inclusive and engaging shines through as he speaks to me: “what about the people of the last 30, 40, 50 years who are influenced by the society around them – that could be through politics, through visual culture or the music culture of their lives? That being said, if you’ve ever picked up an album, whether that be a record or a CD and you’ve actually enjoyed the album cover as much as you have done the music, you’re probably of the generation that we’re trying to aim our artwork at”.
As I speak to Jeff, he shows me new pieces that will soon be exhibited in the gallery, all of which were inspired by musical artists and albums of the 20th Century. His selection was based solely on which ones he found were the most meaningful to him and his life. The personal connection Jeff has with the art he chooses brings a uniqueness to the gallery, something which many of his patrons see as the defining characteristic of the Art of Protest Gallery.
We have to create information that not just enlightens people but energises them and makes them have a reaction
When asked why he finds making art accessible to the younger generation so important, he tells me about what he thinks is missing from society today. We, as a whole, are exposed to phenomenal amounts of me-dia and information at all times through social media and online sites, something which Jeff sees as damaging to the way we think and form opinions. He explains how the gallery aims to combat the throwaway nature of society; “we have to create information that not just enlightens people but also energises them and makes them have a reaction”.
Art was made to cause a reaction, in the opinion of the owner, and he believes that if his exhibits cannot stimulate a conversation then he’s not achieving what he set out to do when he opened the gallery. His work in the gallery sees him encourage those who visit to discuss the art. He is constantly excited about the prospect of a new interpretation or idea that allows him to view the art he exhibits in a new way. When asking people about the gallery, the positive reviews of Jeff and his enthusiasm for his creation are endless.
His ability to draw others into his world is astounding, and it is easy to understand why the gallery has established itself as a favourite of art patrons in York. In the past 12 months Jeff has found himself a firm base of talented and dedicated patrons to help him advertise and run the gallery, creating a family of people who share his vision for the Art of Protest.
The distinct branding of the gallery it-self offers a comment on the state of society in 2018, with their slogan encouraging people to “join the movement”. Once again, Jeff is clearly proud of the brand he has established.
His choice of artists reflects the impact he aims to make on society, with many of them being chosen for their commentary on the social and political climate we find our-selves in: “artists look at actual things that are going on in the world, and they’re going out there…and they record that, and it can either go on a wall, or a piece of paper, or a canvas…[so people] become more mindful of that and like anything it is recorded and documented history rather than a file on someone’s news feed”. The younger generation provides a perfect canvas for the gallery to begin encouraging social consciousness and an ability to identify what’s important among the constant stimulation.
Jeff is clear in the way he wants his gallery to impact individuals: “I remember that artist because I remember the point they made. I remember that gallery, I remember the person in the gallery because they told me something which has influenced me for the better”. One thing is for certain, the Art of Protest Gallery is making waves in York, and my visit undoubtedly changed the way that I think about the art world. M