‘Collections like this don’t often come to towns like ours’
Corby artist Dinah Kazakoff talks about the town’s gallery, Rooftop Arts
Corby is well known for many things, not least its community spirit and resilience; the steel industry; its proud Scottish heritage and its revitalised town centre. At the moment, though, the buzz is all about Steel Nerve, a fantastic exhibition currently on display at Rooftop Arts.
There’s much more to the gallery than this one exhibition, however.
Director Dinah Kazakoff talks to Julia Thorley about the development of Rooftop Arts, the talented local artists who work out of its studios and the value of art in the community.
Rooftop Arts is a not-for-profit charity that offers a space where the community can feel a connection with the arts, and enjoy being involved in workshops and exhibitions. The gallery was originally set up in the former town library, by a group of local artists looking for a space to work. They were granted a ten-year lease by the former Northamptonshire County Council at a peppercorn rent, and it wasn’t long before they had established half a dozen artists’ studios and had started holding exhibitions of their work. When the lease expired around a year ago, the gallery moved into its new home on New Post Office Square.
Dinah Kazakoff joined Rooftop Arts as a resident artist in 2016, taking up her current role as director a year later.
“I was born and educated in Corby, then spent several years travelling, studying and working around the world. I spent some time in America, but when I came back to England I looked for somewhere in Corby where I could have a studio for the various threads of my creative life. Rooftop Arts had space for me, and now I’m its director.”
Dinah is an established and respected artist in a range of visual arts and design. She is widely published and has exhibited many times on her own and in conjunction with other artists. She is an accomplished photographer, and paints in oils, acrylics and water colours. She also studied under sculptor and artist Pietro del Fabro.
Although it was an upheaval at the time, the move to a new venue has turned out to be a positive one. The gallery is in a prime location at the heart of the town, a light and colourful place that feels safer not only for those who work there but also for visitors.
“The old gallery was up a flight of concrete steps and the place could feel intimidating. It didn’t encourage people to pop in and see us. Now we have a lot of ‘passing trade’ from shoppers and visitors to the town, curious about what’s going on here. It’s been good for us and good for the town.”
Steel Nerve is an exhibition of 160 pieces of contemporary urban street art never seen in Northamptonshire before. It includes works by Banksy, Tracy Emin, Damien Hirst, Blek Le Rat, Connor Brothers, Copyright, Ben Eine and My Dog Sighs, and others.
“We are so excited to have an exhibition of the calibre of Steel Nerve here at Rooftop Arts. Corby was chosen to host it by John Brandler of Brandler Galleries, because he knew it was a former steel town. Collections like this don’t often come to towns like ours, so it’s a real privilege. Street art has grown from what was originally thought by some to be ‘criminal’ into a respected form. It’s a perfect fit for the energy of our town. We hope people will come along and enjoy looking at the exhibition, but we also want them to be inspired by it and we’re running some workshops where people can create their own art.”
Giving local people the space and encouragement they need to explore art is an essential part of what Rooftop Arts is all about, including giving artists the opportunity to share their work with visitors. Upstairs it has 14 studios for its resident artists, all occupied at the moment and with a waiting list. The gallery has two big windows on its shop front. One of these is usually devoted to the residents’ work, but there are plans to showcase students’ work here, too. Resident artists may use the exhibition spaces inside the gallery, and there is usually a different exhibition every month, available to view free of charge.
There is plenty of scope for new and emerging artists to use the space and to enjoy help and advice from more established creatives. There are regular Saturday morning classes for two age groups of children, and a mother and toddler class is also planned. Adult classes are run three times a week, and artists of all abilities and experience are welcome. There are ad hoc workshops, too, including fun topics such as ‘Paint Like Pollock’, and outreach work with schools and community groups.
Dina says: “We have people come along who want to improve their skills or explore something new, but we also welcome complete beginners. Sometimes people turn up who are sweating in terror at the thought of picking up a paintbrush. We soon put them at their ease, though, and it’s lovely to watch them flourish as their confidence grows.”
The usual exhibition space has been rearranged temporarily to accommodate Steel Nerve classes that would usually be held downstairs have for now been moved upstairs into the classroom area there, an airy and well-lit project space.
It’s not just visual arts that’s on offer. The gallery also holds monthly acoustic music nights hosted by Kontra Roots with resident band The Rants. There’s a writing group, too, called Corby Collective Poets, run by Poet in Residence Donna Canale.
“As a not-for-profit charity, funding is always an issue, but the gallery receives income from community donations and corporate sponsorship, as well as things like studio rental and associate memberships. We are always interested in hearing from businesses who would like to support what we’re doing, and there are opportunities for us to work with them to provide, say, a package of classes for employees.
“We are always looking for volunteers, too, who could get involved in all sorts of activities, including the day-to-day running of the place, helping set up and staff exhibitions, gallery administration and marketing. Please pop in for a chat if you’d like to help out in any way.”
The overriding impression you get from a visit to Rooftop Arts is that art is for everyone, whether you want to have a look at what others have created or to have a go yourself. There is nothing stuffy or pretentious about the gallery.
“We have a full programme of exhibitions lined up for 2024, including printed fabrics, painting, photography, and solo and group shows. Then there’s our annual open exhibition: not a competition, but a showcase for the amazing talent we have here. The people of Corby are keeping art alive in this town.”
Julia’s note: “I’m not artistic at all, but I went to a Pollock workshop and it was great fun. I still have the piece I created.”