Pyramid: 30 years of supporting learning-disabled talent


Pyramid of Arts is a Leeds-based charity set up in 1989 which invests in artists with learning difficulties through the discovery, development and disruption of the arts. It was originally set up as the Arts Club at Meanwood Park Hospital in 1989, incorporated as an independent charity in 2002, and has since continually grown and worked with artists with learning disabilities to explore and develop their creativity, and to make great art for a wide public. To mark its 30th Anniversary, Pyramid hosted an exhibition at Archive, Leeds 13-18 October. Letty McHugh went to the exhibition and spoke to organisers and artists about Pyramid’s 30-year history.

Series of colourfull banners hanging on a wall

Pyramid exhibition shot.

Pyramid was first set up as a volunteer-run arts club in 1989 at Meanwood hospital, a residential hospital in Leeds where people with learning difficulties often spent large chunks of their lives. One patient was admitted in 1919 and remained an inpatient until his death in 1979.

This institutionalised care mode was obviously hugely problematic, but when the hospital closed in 1996 there was a danger of former patients becoming isolated from each other and losing important relationships. Pyramid continued as a way to keep these friendships alive and some of the original members still work with Pyramid today. Pyramid is celebrating its 30th anniversary with an exhibition and a new publication of artists writings. The organisation has changed a lot over the years and I went along to find out more about what is happening at Pyramid now.

Today Pyramid’s goal ‘…is to help people with a learning disability to discover the arts, develop their talents to become world-class artists.’ This is what makes Pyramid an original and exciting place, they take the learning-disabled artists they work with seriously, encouraging them to be ‘World-class artists’. I spoke to Director James Hill and he explained:

“This isn’t somewhere for people to come and occupy a few hours painting rainbows, we want to support our artists to make work in their own voice that expresses their own concerns.”

A giant Jenga set

Matthew Watson’s ‘Jenga’ set

This means that the structure of Pyramid mimics as far as possible an art school structure that people with learning difficulties might otherwise be excluded from. As well as group making sessions artists are offered one-on-one mentoring, group crits are facilitated, and outings taken to critically engage with exhibitions and galleries around the region. This approach shows in the work made by the artists featured in the exhibition – the work displayed has a confidence, it’s engaged with issues and engaging for the viewer. This was particularly apparent in ‘The Pyramid View on The Yorkshire Sculpture International’, a series of works responding critically to the sculpture festival that took place across Yorkshire this summer.

What stood out to me was the effort that has been made to name individual artists. When crediting collaborative work all the artists who took part are named, as opposed to ‘Made by the Eden group’. This can be a problem for community arts exhibitions generally, not just for programmes for people with learning difficulties. I’ve been to so many exhibitions that tell me work was made by named artists working with recovering alcoholics or residents of a women’s shelter that don’t name a single participant. There is a risk that artists end up speaking on behalf of vulnerable people instead of helping them speak for themselves. But there’s certainly no danger of that here.

Multi-coloured 'graffiti' artwork featuring pink figure and slogan

Ria’s Graffiti Man

Pyramid is genuinely led by the concerns of the learning-disabled artists they work with, magnifying the voices of those artists is the centre of everything they do. A good example of this is the work of artist Stephen Harvey, whose ‘Moan Mats’ are included in the new publication. Harvey’s work features the text “I am not allowed to watch the end of the football match because my Support Worker has to finish his shift on time” printed on beer mats which were distributed in pubs in the Leeds area as part of the BEYOND Learning Disability Arts Festival in 2018. It’s a witty and straight forward project that effectively communicates the artist’s concerns whilst also communicating something about the frustrations faced by all people whose independence is affected by the rigid bureaucracy of the support system.

Other highlights of the exhibition for me included Ria’s bold, expressive, painted banners that feature slogans exploring identity such as ‘No one is you and that is your power’ and Matthew Watson’s playable giant Kate Bush themed ‘Jenga’ set. The work I saw at the exhibition speaks about artists experiences and concerns in a way that is confident and articulate with a touch of humour. The work was visually striking and challenged my preconceptions, that’s sort of all you can ask from an exhibition, isn’t it?

The hope for Pyramid’s future is to relocate to an ambitious new headquarters in the next five years, with the aim of providing a permanent gallery that would make it much easier for the artists to access exhibition space, as well as making room for Pyramid to offer opportunities like curation and residency programmes that learning-disabled artists are traditionally excluded from.

Pyramid is all about giving disabled artists back their voices so I’ll close this article with the words of Ria who, when I asked her hopes for the future said:

“I want people to stop giving money to artists to make work that’s about us and start giving money to us so we can speak for ourselves.”

Find out more about Pyramid, including future exhibitions.