Vic Allen: Artistic Director of Dean Clough Galleries in Halifax, north of England

2010_02_20_Vic Allen_Artistic Director of Dean Clough Galleries in Halifax_north of England
Image: Vic Allen

The Crossley Gallery at Dean Clough could not be a better and more inspiring place to make an interview and Vic Allen could not be a more appropriate person to talk about Yorkshire’s cultural life, its past, regeneration and current state.

Dressed in an informal but stylish way, this Yorkshire-born man welcomes me to the main arts space of Dean Clough sat down in front of a cup of coffee and with a broad smile. At the centre of the room is the awesome bronze sculpture ‘A Twentieth Century Memorial’ by Michael Sandle – a skeletal Mickey Mouse firing a heavy machine gun-. On the table, apart from leaflets, is a book entitled Non-Violence (The history of a dangerous idea) by Mark Kurlansky and Allen’s notebook Vic’s little book of passing anxieties.

He holds an English Literature Degree and has a substantial experience in both the arts and the printed word; editor of Artscene Magazine for 15 years (on behalf of the Arts Council) and a freelance journalist in national newspapers for 25 years. Since 1992, he has been based at Dean Clough, the landmark building which once hosted the largest carpet manufacturer in the world and since 1983 has been a model of cultural regeneration in the north of England.

We start talking about the history of Halifax and the north of England during the last 20 years. Allen explains that the neo-liberalist politics imposed by the government of Margaret Thatcher in the eighties led to the manufacturing industry in England being closed down. Yorkshire, a traditional wool (and of course mining) area, suffered big economic problems and high rates of unemployment. The former manufacturing economy in the UK was transforming into a service economy and it was at this moment that Dean Clough mills, deserted in 1982, underwent a renaissance of a different kind.

Sir Ernest Hall and the late Jonathan Silver were the most prominent directors of what Sir Ernest Hall came to call a ‘practical utopia’ from 1983. They had the vision of transforming the site into a working complex where commerce and culture could play balanced roles. They bought the mill by borrowing money from banks and began to rent out its spaces for office use. It could be said that the economic regeneration of the north of England happened from 1982 to 2000 and Dean Clough was an early symbol of it. The former mill is now a thriving centre for business, the arts and education. Financial, insurance and public sector companies are the major occupiers of the office space while the arts play a key part in community involvement.

Allen explains that there is no public funding for Dean Clough. It is a private organisation with its own agenda. This includes a rolling exhibition programme, its own arts collection and a group of artists that are given rent-free studios, as well as theatre and musical performances.

Allen is very clear in this respect: “Governments never understand the arts.”

As editor of Artscene Magazine, he had an insight into the political pressures exerted on the policies of Arts Council England. Paradoxically (as he notes himself), he considers left-wing government interference in arts matters to be more disastrous than conservative governments. Self-management obviously gives to Dean Clough more freedom for choosing ideas or projects to develop. Although Allen points out that the galleries are compromised by their ‘multiple use’ and have a very different role from state-funded ‘white cube’ spaces, or municipal galleries.

As an artistic director I am a pluralist. I always want to reflect the variety; I just want to reflect the debate in the area.” Allen says.

Recently, Dean Clough has collaborated increasingly with other art organisations such as the Bankfield Museum last year. The sculpture now on display, ‘A Twentieth Century Memorial’, is a loan from Tate Britain, while the graphic works have come from Harrogate’s 108 Gallery. The gallery negotiated with the Tate for almost a year. This once iconic sculpture was unshown for many years until Leeds University Gallery managed to display it in 2005. When it goes from Dean Clough on 6th August (Hiroshima Day) it could well disappear from view once again.

Allen thinks that the tendency to show controversial or shocking art works in order to catch the attention of the public and the media, has excluded a whole generation of artists who were just as interested in political or emotional ideas as their art. Listening to him, one realises what a privilege it is to be able to see this work for free – and to have a thriving centre like Dean Clough is in this area.


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