With their first exihibition taking place in March of 2012, this year will be marking Leicester’s Two Queens Gallery’s fifth birthday. Great Central talked to them about starting their own art gallery in the city’s Cultural Quarter.

“A big frustration for the both of us when we were at uni, was looking at another city and realizing that it was a really interesting place, and that there was no reason for Leicester to not be like that”

The artist-led gallery and studio space conveniently located in the Cultural Quarter was started in 2012 by Daniel Sean Kelly and Gino Attwood, who decided that instead of moving to a city with an already established art scene after graduating, it would be better to improve the art scene in Leicester.

“A big frustration for the both of us when we were at uni, was looking at another city and realizing that it was a really interesting place, and that there was no reason for Leicester to not be like that,” Gino says. “We just felt like there were loads of people who were doing that same thing where they go, ‘Oh, there’s nothing going on here, I’m going to leave.’” So both Dan and Gino saw this as the perfect opportunity. “It felt more important than living somewhere cool and trendy, to do something in the city where I was from and that I cared about. I guess that’s the only way that things like this can start, is if someone starts it.”

“We were essentialy operating in two different artist collectives,” Gino tells us. “I was part of a group of artists who all graduated from Loughborough University, who were called Vanilla Galleries. Dan was part of a group called Cusp, who were studying at De Montfort University. We both graduated the same year and knew each other because we had been to each others shows and knew what the other had done.” When both of them were looking for studio space in Leicester, they ended up viewing the warehouse that is now Two Queens on the same day. “We saw how big it was and how difficult it would be for someone to take on. None of us had ever done anything like that before.”

“From the beginning, we’ve always wanted to be independent. We’ve known other spaces that haven’t had enough artists working there to make it work as a business, and that means that some of these spaces don’t carry on very long.” explains Dan. The first thing they did once they’d received the keys to the castle, was setting up affordable studio spaces so they could rent them out to local artists before setting up the gallery. “We generally work with artists that are just starting out and don’t have a huge income. They want to experiment and not necessarily have to be focused on bringing in an income from their work,” explains Gino. “The size of the building means that we can have enough studio spaces to make it self-sufficient. Which means we’ve been quite resilient in operating without having to have funding.”

In fact, when Dan and Gino first started Two Queens Gallery, they did so without any funding and on a three month rolling contract for the building. “So much of the structure of the organisation was set up in an environment where we didn’t know what was going to happen. During the first year we were here, we did about nine or 10 exhibitions, which is a really fast turn around. We learned quite quickly that that is a really good way to get super stressed, tired and burnt-out, because we had no money to do anything.” Gino says.

After receiving small amounts of funding during the second and third year, in 2016 Two Queens received a bigger grant from the Arts Council. “We don’t know whether or not Arts Council will still exist in a few years time, so in terms of funding our exhibitions, we know we have to be quite self-sustainable as an organisation. We have to have more studios than we need just to keep going. Which is kind of what we have, but the more studios there are for artists the better.” Not relying on funding for the full 100% is important to both Gino and Dan. “The Arts Council hasn’t always existed. it feels like it’s always been there and has always been a really steady thing, but in the history of time it might prove to just have been a temporary thing.”

Starting their own gallery and studio space has been a learning curve. “There are a lot of things we could have done differently from the beginning, so we would have had more income, but that has never been why we wanted to do it. We were very focused on exhibitions and making things happen because we just wanted there to be shows.”

Over the last five years, Two Queens has not only displayed a lot of exhibitions and artists’ work from in and around Leicester, they have also been able to show their members’ work in different cities like Edinburgh and Reykjavik, as well as Bristol later this year. “We operate within an artist community of a lot of spaces across the country and even worldwide. It’s more about the friends that you make through having exchanges and meeting other people in the industry. It widens your experience of what you’re seeing and who is giving you feedback on your work and what you’re learning,” says Dan. “We took a group of artists up to the Embassy Gallery in Edinburgh in July 2016. To our knowledge, it was probably the biggest exhibition of Leicester based artists outside of Leicester.”

From 4th March, nicely coinciding with their anniversary, Two Queens will be exhibiting Latvian artist Viktor Timofeev’s work ‘If I could go to sleep for days, would you count the hours? (Sazarus 4)’. “The exhibition includes virtual reality and really challenges people to interact with it in strange ways, which we think will be really exciting for people.”

“I think it’s really important for cities to have public spaces like parks and museums. We want it to be a public space…”

The shows that are exhibited at the gallery are always chosen whilst keeping the Leicester audience in mind. “It is about making sure we have shows that somehow have a relationship with the audience. We have a really interesting audience in Leicester, and I think that it’s important to keep in mind that they might not go to lots of exhibitions, but we don’t want to dumb it down and make it overly accessible and compromise the work. We want to challenge them. That’s why a lot of the projects we’ve done throughout this funded programme have featured things that are interactive. I think interactivity in contemporary art is a bit contentious. A lot of artists we work with might be a bit put off by making something interactive because it seems a bit gimmicky. We are interested in artists that are happy to step outside of their comfort zone and do something valuable with that. We want to show work that engages the audience in some way.”

Having started a gallery in a city with a then less evolved art scene gave Dan and Gino the chance to do their own thing in some regards. “I have found that, because of our removal from that art world context, we’ve got a remoteness which has often allowed artists to be a bit more experimental and less pressured about what they do. It’s really good to be part of that process and to work with artists who are doing really ambitious things nationally and that are able to try something different without worrying that they might be sneered at by some London audience who are a bit less forgiving or even bored of art. Everything still feels fresh in Leicester,” Gino explains.

Where do Dan and Gino see Two Queens gallery in another five years?

“Hopefully still here and in a space with a bigger audience, or that more people in Leicester come to see things. To be more of a public space for the city,” Dan says.

“I keep trying to change the conversation and stop trying to talk about it as a gallery, but more as a public space. I think it’s really important for cities to have public spaces like parks and museums. We want it to be a public space, so we want to be open more often and we want to be a place that people feel like they can just go to without it being like an epic trip which they have to make because they should be looking at art, or something. I want it to be like a walk in the park.”

Viktor Timofeev’s ‘If I could go to sleep for days, would you count the hours? (Sazarus 4)’ will be displayed at Two Queens Gallery from March 4th.

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