Our History

Making Music the Japanese Way (1992)

Animator Sheila Graber worked with Helix Arts several times over the years and posted this film that she and Lucy made together in 1992.

Helix Arts was born on Wearside in 1983 and was originally known as Artists' Agency. Our founder, Lucy Fairley, died Monday 19 September 2016. The staff and trustees of Helix Arts continue to be inspired by her original vision for our work. She is much missed by the arts community.

At that time it was not the norm to mix disciplines and perspectives. Around the table we felt how transgressive it was: yet it defined Lucy and Artists Agency’s approach.

The Artist Agency was founded by Lucy Fairley (Milton) in 1983. Lucy’s ally Esther Salamon joined her as co-director in 1987, consolidating their shared passion for transdisciplinary artistic interventions that addressed social and environmental problems. We quickly became one of the country’s early pioneers of social, environmental, and critical arts practices, and gained charitable status in 1989.

Whilst at Helix Arts, Lucy became recognised as forerunners in community art. She introduced the idea of connecting high quality artists with diverse and disadvantaged communities to make great art together in northern towns as a way of amplifying the voices of those who were seldom heard.

This rigorous approach continued with various Helix Arts’ leaders to what is now known as co-production that has always been at the heart of everything that we do and will continue to drive our future programme with game-changing.

Our interdisciplinary projects such as those at Quaking Houses (1995-1999) and Skinningrove (2000) are now recognised as milestones in “collaborative arts practices that address complex ecological and social issues”. These experiences, together with our many other expansive and experimental projects, are part of our legacy and our heritage.

In 2000, we changed our name to Helix Arts but we remained committed to creating collaborative, interdisciplinary arts projects with and by community members and artists that challenge perceptions and seek to help make our world a better place.

The words we wrote about our ambitious “Visions of Utopia” project in 1997 still ring true today. It was aimed at enabling everyone to identify and explore visions of better lives and the better worlds they would like to inhabit.

We’ve been based in Sunderland and Newcastle before moving to our current home in North Shields. But we’ve always worked across the North East of England and continue to do so now.

Former trustee and local artist, Neil Canavan said, “The high-quality processes developed by Helix Arts to engage with all kinds of disadvantaged communities have influenced artists right across the North East and further afield.”

Our legacy means that we have generated a significant and greatly respected body of work spanning a wide range of art forms and issues.

We know we can always learn a great deal from our pasts, so we will be revisiting our archive to renew our focus and impetus ahead our 40th anniversary year in 2023.

We are now preparing to celebrate the company’s past heritage, whilst highlighting and revisiting our present and future programme to clearly show how the legacy of its past still influences and inspires our every decision.

Tell us your Helix Arts story!

At Helix Arts we plan to build an archive of the many and varied creative programmes we’ve run right across the North East over the last 32 years. Week by week we’ll be adding to the stories Lucy and Esther have told us about the early days, and we would love to hear from you too.