Oxheys was started in 2011 as a response to the closing of PAD (Preston Art and Design) Gallery in Preston, as the council could no longer afford the £84,000 a year it apparently cost them. At that time, there were no artist studios anywhere in Preston, no artist groups and nowhere else for local artists to exhibit or show their work or even meet up.
Oxheys was set up to try and show that supporting the arts in Preston didn’t have to cost that much – just an empty building, a sympathetic and visionary landlord and a few artists that wanted to make a difference and who were prepared to roll up their sleeves to make it happen…
We were lucky in that Celia Cross, a friend and at the time leader of Lancashire Artists Network (LAN) was a friend of Albert Richardson, former mayor of Preston but who also owned Oxheys Mill on Stanhope Street, off Brook Street. As the factory had closed down it was standing empty and he had previously allowed the homeless people to shelter in it over the winter months so it was near derelict. We were able to persuade him to let us try it out, with 6 months free then at a very low rent. We gave our word we would look after it and do our best and he trusted us.
We got the keys to the near-derelict factory mill on Stanhope Street in April 2011. Despite much initial interest from quite a few LAN artists, just 3 of us were left to clean it up, fix and paint it in time to run our first open exhibition just a few months later, in the August. At the opening several other artists then joined as residents and other than a few short gaps, we remained fully occupied, with a waiting list, until 2017.
We were determined to be self-sufficient – we didn’t ask for funding nor did we charge visitors for events, making just a nominal charge to artists to enter work into open exhibitions and taking a small commission on sales. Our landlord Cllr Albert Richardson and once again Mayor of Preston, was completely supportive and proud of what we achieved, never increasing the rent once in 6 years. He took great pleasure showing his friends around ‘his gallery’ – it also gave him bragging rights with his fellow councillors!
This model was however, totally dependent on the voluntary efforts of just a couple of resident artists on whose shoulders it fell to organise, manage, install, run and publicise exhibitions and events. We were also lucky to have some invaluable supporters who provided unpaid help with maintenance, installations, moral support and publicity along with donations and sponsored events. We say a big thank you to them and in particular to Lubaina Himid CBE for unending support and guidance, to Prof Charles Quick for encouragement, Tracy Hill and Magda Stawarska-Beavan from ArtLab Contemporary Print Studios for entrusting us with the annual 20:20 print event and Garth Gratrix for being our very first artist in residence. Thank you all. Huge thanks also to Carl Swanson for his unending help with maintenance, painting, building studio walls, putting up shelves, installing artworks and generally fixing things – we could not have done it without him.
Our exhibition preview evenings became popular events, were always busy, becoming a favourite opportunity for local artists and art lovers to meet, network, enjoy a drink and conversation whilst viewing some innovative art. Albert always enjoyed attending these evenings, he and Carl would often sit and chuckle together, so our last one on March 2nd 2017 was tinged with some sadness that neither was able to attend due to their failing health.
During our 6 years in Oxheys Mill we organised and ran 37 exhibitions, accommodated 27 resident artists, hosted 3 residencies, collaborated with 17 organisations, exhibited work from 111 artists.
We ran 14 arts-related events including theatre, live music, poetry and creative writing, hosted 8 talks and welcomed over 3777 visitors.
In March 2017 we sadly lost the use of the old factory mill on Stanhope Street due to its sale, so we have evolved into a peripatetic arts collective, now known simply as Oxheys. Watch for details of our future endeavours and do join our mailing list.
In 2018 we sadly lost Albert but his memory will live on through Oxheys.
We had lost Carl not long beforehand, so we say one last “cheers” to the “two old boys” of Oxheys – we will not forget you.