10 April 2019

How an empty Sheffield factory became the ‘once in a lifetime’ Phlegm art experience

Professor Vanessa Toulmin, Director of City and Culture, discusses how an abandoned cutlery factory in Sheffield became the final resting place for a group of giant mythical creatures, created by street artist Phlegm.

Credit: Chris Saunders

Farewell sweet Guardian, goodbye dear Giants, the Mausoleum has finally closed, and the creatures have departed to eternal slumber into Sheffield folklore. For three mad crazy weeks, an old factory on Milton Street has been the centre of what makes Sheffield a place of creative talent, artistic brilliance and gentle humility.

From four hour queues on the final Saturday to good-natured camaraderie in the rain, the visitors have taken centre stage alongside those magnificent sad creatures they came to salute.

From Manchester to Morocco, Bradford to Bologna and Reykjavik to Rotherham, the audience has been funny, appreciative, patient and insightful about our city.

Sheffield is a city of treasures, you keep digging and find more great things’ one anonymous visitor wrote in the many thousands of feedback forms now being processed. Twitter and Instagram abounded with comments both about the exhibition but also the city – ‘what a great place’ – ‘super cool’ – ‘do you have a mailing list, I’m from Leeds we don’t do anything like this’ and the strangest one ‘why is this not in London’!

The London one I will answer later but let us start with facts, empirical data collected by the amazing Fran Marshall from the University of Sheffield’s Partnership and Regional Engagement Team, who alongside myself and university staff worked with partners to bring this together.

In total 12,081 visitors came to the exhibition, thousands of feedback forms are being processed alongside data from Twitter and Instagram and emails. The exhibition was a partnership with the University of Sheffield, Welcome to Sheffield and the Culture Consortium and funded by an Arts Council Cultural Destinations award.

It was staffed by volunteers, over 150, who contributed much to the overall festivity and good-natured element of the exhibition. Chris Saunders photographed all stages of the exhibition over the past five months, covering the artist at work, the opening night, visitors and of course their final resting place to be published as a momentum for something we all achieved together. Volunteers such as aptly named queue charmers Nigel and Barry appeared nearly every weekend to hand out sweets, inform crowds of their waiting time and tell stories of how they worked alongside the artist to make the Giants.

Colleagues from Sheffield Theatres, Museum Sheffield, Site, SIV, Yorkshire Arts Space, Sheffield Library, the artist team, University of Sheffield and Sheffield Council braved the cold, damp and long hours to inform visitors of both the exhibition and the city we live and work in. Colleagues such as Tamar, Lesley, Sara, Wendy, Penny and Sophie formed the backbone of an event management team from across the council, the university and the artist.

True North created a Giant stout and pub trail of special beer mats and reported customers from Newcastle, Sweden, Italy and New York. And let us not forget the queue, which became part of the experience as visitors and residents alike shared stories, made new friends, took pride in their city and the artist.

Daily I wandered down the corridors, taking them to the the hooded figure so characteristic of Phlegm’s world that I named the Guardian. Every 20 minutes I asked how many have heard of the artist and the answers were illuminating, with sometimes only 20 per cent aware of his work but now 100 per cent enamoured, proud he had chosen Sheffield to do this magnificent, crazy thing.

So let us finally thank the artist known as Phlegm, who spent 15 years working and living in Sheffield, whose love of the city enabled us to commission this astonishing piece of art and dedicate five months of his life to creating those mournful monsters .

That alone answers the question why not London, because Sheffield is the city that welcomed him.

Sheffield is where he launched his now legendary comic books and Sheffield is the city where his art work adorns the streets. His humility reflects the place that shaped his early artistic development, and the quiet ambition and scale of his artistry can also shine a beacon on future collaborations and ambitions. For if we can transform an empty factory into ‘a once in a lifetime art experience’ as one visitor observed, what else can we achieve?

Whether you are born in the city, come here as a student or to work, the city gets under your skin.

So the message from the Giants as they enter their eternal rest is think big, think special and think Sheffield as we do things differently here – after all, they didn’t get sweets in the queue at Dismaland.

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