“We’ve all started to realise just how important being creative is…”
Left Bank is no ordinary church. Walk in through its heavy wooden doors and you won’t find any sermons being given or hymns being sung. Instead, depending on the day of the week, you might run into break dancers practising their latest routine, older citizens refining their watercolours, local artists flogging their wares or students watching their lectures over a coffee or a pint of Left Bank’s home-brewed beer.
Sue Jennings, Left Bank’s Director, tells me that this is all part of the vision she had for Left Bank when she joined at the end of 2019:
“The experiences I’ve had working with the creative business community and supporting freelancers and other organisations quite naturally led to the opportunity here to develop this business. We just want to be a space that breaks down barriers between people and helps them realise they’ve all got something in common because they live in the same area and want to get out and be creative.”
The hub of creative community activity that Left Bank has now become is only a relatively recent development. Left Bank’s current premises were actually purchased in the 90s by the ‘Left Bank Charitable Trust’ – a group of local Christians who wanted to save the building and retain it for community use. In 2015, the Trust set up a non-profit Community Interest Company (essentially a social enterprise) to run the building and develop it. However, pre-pandemic, Left Bank was an ‘occasional events space’ – used predominantly for weddings, celebrations and corporate events, but rarely open to the public.
In the last 2 years, Left Bank has undergone a dramatic rebrand. Sue explains that, whilst the Trust always had a vision of the building as a creative community space, they had been struggling to work out exactly what that vision would look like. During the pandemic, however, Sue and the team spotted an opportunity to transform Left Bank’s space into something very different:
“During the first lockdown we had lots of community organisation in here, like charities putting together care packages for the homeless and other things like that. It was through talking to all these different people and volunteers that we started to realise that this is a space that could be really beneficial to lots of people.”
“When we were able to reopen again there was just that moment where we thought: ‘Let’s get a second-hand coffee machine and buy some benches and see what happens’. We thought that people really needed somewhere where they could go and feel safe to meet their friends again and just be creative.”
Sue tells me that she doesn’t think this change could have happened at any other time. She says that it was actually thanks to the pandemic that Left Bank has been able to achieve everything they have done in the last 2 years:
“I think the pandemic played a big part in helping us to change everything. During the first lockdown everyone was doing all these new things like fixing the garden or decorating or writing a novel – just all these creative things that people didn’t do before.”
“It’s like the whole nation was out there realising that maybe our educational agenda had sort of been pushing the creative agenda backwards a bit – and suddenly we were all starting to recognise just how important being creative actually is”.
Another big part of realising their creative vision has been the relationships that Sue and the team have built with people from all across the Leeds community. Sue is keen to emphasize the ‘organic’ approach they take to running the business. They take everyone who approaches them seriously, and have worked hard to create an environment where people can ‘walk in with an idea’ and get help from the Left Bank team to develop it:
“After the pandemic we just started meeting more and more people –local artists and businesses, even break dancers – all of whom now run regular things here. We’ve got spoken word events, hip hop sessions, life drawing groups and loads of other groups and clubs that meet in here every week.”
Sue thinks that their ‘creative Wednesday’s’ provide the best example of everything that the business is all about coming together in one place:
“We decided we would just have a night a week where people can just come in and be creative. We try and make these as accessible as possible so we run affordable art workshops like lino printing or watercolour painting, and we’ve always got a big cupboard of art materials so you can just come in and use them for free however you want to.
“These nights really show the benefits of having everyone from across the community in here together. You’ll have the older ladies in their 70s doing our art workshops chatting to break dancers, and the break dancers are overwhelmed by how beautiful their watercolours are or whatever it is they’re doing. That just really helps to break down barriers between people and bring in a really great mix of individuals.”
Outside of the Church itself, Left Bank also do a huge amount of work with the local Leeds community, as part of their efforts to ‘elevate Hyde Park in a positive way rather than just all the negative stuff you hear about the area’. Loren Turton is Left Bank’s Community Projects Director. Her role was created last Summer, as part of Left Bank’s plans to expand their engagement with the local community. She tells me that they are constantly speaking to people and organisations all over the city to find out what they might want and need from Left Bank’s space.
They also meet regularly with other local student hotspots including Book Club, Brudenell and Picture House as part of a ‘town team’ that plan joint initiatives and events. As I speak to them, they are looking forward to an upcoming fundraiser for Ukraine they are running jointly with Brudenell, as well as developing plans for a festival with the other town team businesses in the Autumn. They also consult on a ‘neighbourhood plan’ that the local planning department consider when making changes to the area, and have recently set up a new social feed (#WhyHydePark) and developed a Hyde Park zine to promote positive local stories and initiatives.
If all that wasn’t enough, the future of Left Bank looks even brighter. Sue tells me they have plans to further develop their space over the next few years, including increasing the building’s capacity, repurposing their choir stalls into new seated booths and putting in a new kitchen, bar and coffee shop:
“I think as the building changes we’ll be able to bring more of the community in and have better facilities for them when they come. It’s just about being enterprising and making sure people in the area have somewhere to develop their business or their creative practise or whatever else it is.”
Ultimately, Sue and Loren want to share their passionate for creativity, community and the Hyde Park area as far and wide as possible:
“It’s so important to give people these opportunities to engage in creative activities where in the past they couldn’t afford it, didn’t have room in their life to fit it in or didn’t feel like it was for them.”
“That’s what Left Bank is all about – thinking about how we can connect the community together and what we can offer to people of all ages to enhance their lives really. That’s what we’ve been doing, and we’re just going to keep being here, staying open and continuing to develop that”.
Header Image Credit: Facebook, @leftbankleeds