The people who brought Banksy to Corby
This time last year, the Rooftop Arts Centre in Corby was facing an uncertain future after it was turfed out of its home of a decade to make way for a new sixth form college.
Although it was a stressful period for those who ran the gallery, they were determined to leave their former base with a bang, and they did, with a unique residence hosted by maverick local musician Bill Drummond.
The gallery, which hosts local exhibitions and provides workshop and events space for the town’s community of artists, found an unlikely new home in an empty 1980s shop unit in New Post Office Square. Under the directorship of Corby-born Dinah Kazakoff, they began work to transform it into a light and airy new gallery to make sure that the town’s buoyant art scene continued to flourish.
A few months ago, another local artist, director of Fermynwoods Contemporary Art Rosalind Stoddart heard that Brentwood-based gallery-owner John Brandler – a well-known collector and dealer of urban street art – was looking for a new place to display some of his £25m Banksy collection.
She knew just the place, and recommended he speak to Dinah.
Rosalind said: “I heard through a friend that this guy John Brandler wanted to bring Banksy to Corby.
"So I contacted Dinah and she just said yes. And it looks so fabulous. I just hope it brings a new audience to art in Corby.”
Banksy is rumoured to be a Bristolian who began graffitiing the side of buildings in his home city in the mid 1990s. He keeps his real identity a secret in order to avoid getting in trouble with the law, but operates through his own company Pest Control, that now verifies the authenticity of his art.
His work has always contained an element of political activism mixed with humour.
“This exhibition has been all over but John was looking for a former steel town,” said Dinah.
"He wandered through the door and I said ‘you’ve found the right place’
"That was how it happened.”
The result is Steel Nerve, a three month exhibition of urban street art in the heart of Corby.
It’s fair to say this is the first time in Corby’s modern history that it’s hosted works by a world-renowned artists whose paintings regularly sell for more than a million. Dinah said she hopes that the exhibition will help entice in people who have never been to the Rooftop gallery before.
"It’s great for the community to have access to this kind of artwork,” said Dinah.
"We’ll be closing on Mondays and Tuesdays so we can have schools visit us for free and we’ll be doing some classes with them so they can have a go themselves.”
Hanging alongside Banksy’s works are also pieces by Blek le Rat, a Parisian seen as the father of stencil art, enfant terrible Tracey Emin, Connor Brothers, Copyright, Ben Eine, Damien Hirst and My Dog Sighs.
‘We have fun, Banksy and I’
John Brandler has been collecting Banksy since 2003, the year the artist started walking into museums and hanging his own ironic pieces. Back then, you could pick up a Banksy for £40. John says he only buys art he loves, and won’t buy anything he doesn’t like, even if it’s a bargain. Most of the work in his gallery is owned by him and he says enjoys buying work by up-and-coming artists just as much as his Banksy pieces.
A similar exhibition two years ago in Bury-St-Edmunds drew in 25,000 people.
"It was a record number for the town,” he said.
“And I decided I wanted to go to other places.
"I walked in the door here and they were so friendly and nice.”
John agreed to bring his collection to Corby, and after hard work by a team of gallery staff, most of them volunteers, to prepare the space, a preview took place for invited guests on Saturday evening (October 29).
One of the most expensive pieces on show is Bomb Hugger, priced at a cool £80,000, although there are much cheaper paintings, the first of which sold within half an hour of the exhibition opening.
If you can’t quite stretch to a Banksy, there are many more affordable pieces on sale, as well as a gift shop for those of us on a reporter’s budget.
"I’m astonished by how good it’s looking compared to some of the shows I’ve done in much more established museums,” said John.
"There was a team that started at 7am this morning. I work with people, not against them and if I didn’t like the people here then I wouldn’t be here.”
John was the first person to ever painstakingly remove and exhibit a Banksy graffiti ‘wall’ from the location in which it was painted – an exercise which no insurance company would cover. He now owns five ‘walls’, three of which are exhibited in Italy. One of them, Seasons Greetings, mocked the poor air quality in Port Talbot, the steel town which is inextricably linked to Corby by its daily steel train deliveries.
When John removed it in 2022, another street artist quickly painted a new work in the vacated space which shows a little boy pointing and saying, ‘look dad, it’s a Banksy.’ He replies ‘no it’s a John Brandler son.’
But would Banksy approve of the Corby exhibition?
"We have fun, Banksy and I,” said John.
"We have an understanding. I don’t say anything nasty about him and he leaves me alone.”
‘It’s something really different for Corby’
One of the volunteers who helped with the logistics of putting the exhibition together was broadcaster and artist Chuck Middleton.
“The people here are very dedicated and full of passion,” he said.
“They just really wanted to bring this thing to Corby. I know lots of people will come through the doors.
"I love the cultural references in this art and the political messages.”
Lisa Manton brought her two children Lottie ,ten, and Olly, eight, to the preview night. It’s the first time the children have been to an exhibition.
"It’s something really different for Corby,” said Lisa.
"It’s just incredible to have it here. Lottie loves art and it’s great for her to be able to see some Banksy in Corby."
But did Banksy turn up to the opening on a drizzly Saturday night in Corby? Guess we’ll never know..
- Entry to Steel Nerve at Rooftop Arts, 27 New Post Office Square, is £7 for adults, £3 for teens and free for under-12s. It runs from this Wednesday (November 1) until January 28. The gallery is open from Wednesdays to Sundays from 11am until 4pm. You can buy tickets here or just turn up.
- The gallery is run as a not-for-profit charity. The entry fee and merchandise sales will cover the cost of staffing and any left over profit will be put back into continuing to develop the space for the community.