Kettle's Yard: a new chapter

A jewel in the crown of the cultural scene is set to reopen. Ruthie Collins looks at its history, and discovers what's in store

Kettle’s Yard, long a glittering jewel in Cambridge’s art circuit, reopens this month with extensively improved facilities and a keynote show, Actions. The image of the world can be different.

Major supporters of the redevelopment include Arts Council England and Heritage Lottery Fund, plus Cambridge City Council and other donors, helping Kettle’s Yard to offer state-of-the-art galleries and education spaces to the public.

“I hope Cambridge and its diverse communities will value Kettle’s Yard as a place for them, where they feel welcomed, can connect and engage in activities, and so shape who we are and what we do,” says director of Kettle’s Yard, Andrew Nairne.

Delivered by architect Jamie Fobert, the new Kettle’s Yard is contemporary in feel, yet textured throughout with a homely, welcoming feel. The design itself also references the original architect, Leslie Martin, who was a master in bringing light in from above. Its skylights and high walls mirror details in the Kettle’s Yard House, creating an improved sense of space – with direct access from the gallery to the house, offering an Alice in Wonderland experience for the visitor, who can now enjoy timed visits to the house, on entrance.    

With an exhibition programme including the likes of Antony Gormley, 2018 looks set to be a packed year for the gallery and house, which has been part of Cambridge University’s museums portfolio since 1966, when it was gifted to them by art collector and benefactor, Jim Ede. Culture lovers and artists alike are actively encouraged to attend the wide range of talks, seminars and events as part of exhibition programmes. 

This image: Woman in Room by John Akomfrah

Actions. The image of the world can be different, with 38 artists, already looks set to be a game changer for the gallery, a vital reminder of the need for – and power of – art to transform our world, inspired by a quote from artist Naum Gabo (1890-1977), whose groundbreaking sculptures are usually seen in the Kettle’s Yard House. “Gabo believed that artists played an important role in society by offering images and objects which help us to see the world both differently and more clearly. This deeper perception could have an impact on our individual and collective actions for good,” explains Andrew.

“I think we have the opportunity to play an even more dynamic role within Cambridge, as a cultural centre for everyone.”   

The opening show includes an impressive, diverse range of works, from Turner Prize-winning Richard Long, to Mary Kelly ‘mother of all feminist artists’ (The Guardian) – offering something for everyone. “The artists in Actions range from Ben Nicholson, Edmund de Waal and Cornelia Parker to the emerging talent of Khadija Saye, who so tragically died in the Grenfell Tower fire,” continues Andrew, who curated the show. The show also includes works by Cambridge artists including Anna Brownsted, whose work, Diplomat, is a response to the US Presidential Election. ‘The show has the potential to act as a sort of remedy. It emphasises the significance of small, personal acts that have the potential to shift your sense of power,” comments Anna. Check annabrownsted.com/diplomat for more information.

Also watch out for Cambridge-based Syrian artist Isaam Kourbaj, who will be taking a daily action throughout the show, inspired by the Syrian conflict. 

“I wanted to make a large, varied and thought-provoking exhibition to celebrate and launch our new galleries,” adds Andrew. “In fact, the exhibition spills out of the galleries and can also be found in the House, in North Cambridge (a temporary public mural in Arbury by the artist eL Seed), and even on T-shirts and in our new lift!” adds Andrew. 

This image: part of a mural by eL Seed

Visitors can see the mural by French Tunisian artist eL Seed – known for painting poetic messages of hope, using Arabic calligraphy, plus graffiti as influences – at the end wall of the council-owned flats, in Arbury Court.

Also causing a stir as part of the show are several large photo portraits of Bangladeshi women living in Cambridge, by Melanie Manchot, all taken in different locations in the city, including the King's College Dining Hall. “We have supported around ten artists to make new artworks especially for the exhibition. I would highlight Rana Begum’s poetic installation in St Peter’s Church (next to Kettle’s Yard) of over 1,000 baskets hand made in Bangladesh, the country of her birth,” says Andrew.

Improved facilities at Kettle’s Yard include a fabulous Clore Learning Studio, with kitchen facilities and a wonderful feel throughout; the Edlis-Neeson Research Space, which offers a boost to what can be displayed; plus there’s the Ede Room, a dry learning space also suitable for screenings. There’s also a café and shop, including Cambridge makers and producers.

For Karen Thomas, Community Officer at Kettle’s Yard, the improved space is a chance to build on their valuable work in North Cambridge. “Kettle's Yard has been working in collaboration with our local community in North Cambridge for the past three years on our Open House programme,” she says.

“Open House has engaged over 10,000 people and created astonishing new artworks by renowned contemporary artists with local people. We are really looking forward to welcoming everyone to the new Kettle’s Yard with our exciting programme of events and activities and we are delighted to be continuing our Open House activity, building on our experiences to date and using the opportunities that the new Education Wing at Kettle’s Yard affords for people locally.”

With regular community days in the pipeline and increased partnership working with local groups, the new Kettle’s Yard looks set to offer an enriching experience for the Cambridge community. 

“My message to artists is that we need you,” concludes Andrew. “Creativity in all its forms has always offered an essential counterbalance to the negative forces which threaten to weaken and sometimes devastate communities and economies. Jim Ede, who created Kettle’s Yard, believed in the power of art to transform life.” 

Visitors can enjoy the improved Kettle’s Yard from the 10 February. Watch out for free talk, ‘What Can Art Do?’ on 20 February, exploring the possibilities art can offer.