State of the art: Harrogate’s boom in independent galleries
Last updated Feb 18, 2022
Liz Hawkes, director of Watermark Gallery, with some of the work on display at the recent Small Painting Show exhibition.

If you have wandered around Harrogate, you may have noticed a boom in the number of independent art galleries in the town.

In recent years, at least three have launched, including Messums Yorkshire, Watermark Gallery, and Bils and Rye.

And this is in the addition to the established galleries in the town, such as the Mercer, Silson Contemporary, RedHouse Originals and York Fine Arts – to name but a few.

All have proved to be a major draw for both artists and collectors, with many placing an emphasis on promoting Northern talent.

Silsen Contemporary Art Gallery, based at Sarah Collier’s home on Harlow Oval.

Liz Hawkes, director of Watermark Gallery, which opened on the historic Royal Parade in March 2020, said:

“I think there are lots of reasons why Harrogate is great for art. There is the town’s antiques and art heritage.

“There’s also Yorkshire’s art heritage. From Hockney to Hirst, you have got very well-known Yorkshire artists. This area is very well-served by local artists who love to come here and paint, because it’s so beautiful.

“A lot of people also love to visit Harrogate and it’s a very affluent area, with lots of residents who like to buy art.”

Liz, who owns the gallery with her husband Richard, said all the galleries in the town offered something completely different, from ultra-modern contemporary art to traditional Victorian watercolours.

She said:

“You’ve got some fabulous galleries. Each have their own identity.

“We have 57 artists across all media, which is the main point of difference for us.

“Not everybody is always in the market for a painting, but you might pop in for some ceramics or jewellery.

“I think the other thing about us is accessibility. We have really focused on making this gallery accessible to all people. So many people find galleries intimidating.”

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Liz explained that art had become more accessible than ever in recent years thanks to the Own Art scheme. The national initiative makes buying contemporary art and craft affordable by providing interest-free credit for the purchase of original work.

The Watermark gallery is holding six exhibitions this year, with the next, Off the Beaten Track, featuring Yorkshire ceramicist Michele Bianco and Scottish-based Swiss painter, Pascale Rentsch, planned in March.

A number of workshops, courses and lectures will also take place in the studio space at the back of the gallery.

The Watermark Gallery. 

Liz said:

“I think the days of dusty old galleries have gone. The modern gallery is one where things are happening. It’s interactive and fun.”

Johnny Messum, director of Messums Yorkshire, also known as Messums Harrogate and Messums North, agrees that the town is a perfect location to showcase artistic talent.

After an extended stay on James Street following a successful temporary pop-up exhibition in 2020, Messums is moving out of the building at the end of this month.

However, the contemporary art dealer is hoping to find another location in Harrogate and is currently looking for a new site.

Photograph: @messumsyorkshire, Instagram

He said:

“We really want to stay, we just need to find the right venue. We hold very good relationships with our collector base here and have a strong presence in Yorkshire.

“Harrogate is a great place to act as a lightening rod for drawing attention to creativity in the area.”

Johnny said the quality of the art and the number of galleries in Harrogate attracted to people to the town, with many collectors making a special visit.

The gallery’s most recent exhibition, Routes North, has just come to an end, which brought together multiple artists whose work reflects the variety and vibrancy of the region, from Knaresborough to Newcastle.

The exhibition represented the first presentation in the North of this programme, which has been championing emerging talent across Messums sister galleries in London and Wiltshire for the last five years.

It’ also set out to prove that that all roads don’t lead to London when it comes to the quality of work and artistic talent.

Johnny said:

“What’s driving the future of our stay in Yorkshire is that the creativity of the art produced in the area is really exciting.”

Work by Jill Tate and James Thompson at the Routes North exhibition. Photograph: Messums Yorkshire.

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