David Dale Gallery is ten years old!

To celebrate, ruminate on the past decade and look forwards to what could be next, four texts were commissioned in January 2020, and will be posted here over the coming weeks, by Cheryl Jones (Director, Grand Union), Michael White (Co-Director, Celine and Artist), Morgan Quaintance (Artist) and Caitlin Merrett King (Programme Coordinator, David Dale Gallery). There is also an introductory text at the bottom of the page by Max Slaven, Programme Director at DDG. 


David Dale Gallery, 2020


Longing for a home that has never existed
Caitlin Merrett King (Programme Coordinator, David Dale Gallery)

I began writing this text at the end of last year. This text was comprised of several personal anecdotes from over the course of the 2019 summer events programme. I described conversations had, food eaten, coffees drank and Tennents cans both drank and served at the bar in the courtyard late at night. I discussed David Dale Gallery’s position as a site for eating, for socialising, for performing and for dancing, and what it means for a gallery’s function to be so malleable and unpredictable. Now, coming back to work after five months of furlough, and re-reading this text, I realise that I’d rather not share it with you. It is a description of a completely different time to now and the nostalgic process of recounting long hot summers feels kind of self-indulgent. Instead, I will relocate my desire for a nostalgic approach in evaluation and looking forwards. With a previous programme so heavily dependent on a lot of people coming together in a physical space, it is vital, given the restrictions from COVID-19, and prevalent conversations around accessibility and inclusivity, to reflect and re-imagine a programme, a gallery and a society that is more creative, empathic and responsible.

There is a reason why up until the 19th century, ‘Nostalgia’, it’s meaning deriving from the Greek words nostos (‘homecoming’) and algos (‘pain’), was seen as an affliction of the mind in western European medicine. Not only an individual response, Svetlana Boym defines nostalgia as a historical emotion which allows us to separate the local from the universal, and therein lies its danger. She identifies two types of nostalgia, restorative and reflective. Restorative nostalgia ‘does not think of itself as nostalgia, but rather as truth and tradition.’[1] Our current political climate is scarred by a violent narrative of xenophobia and nationalism driven by a restorative nostalgia- see the Tory’s xenophobic Brexit and Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’. Restorative nostalgia is ‘a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed’[2], where the romance of the recollection is key to its potency. As Samuel Earle explains, even though reflecting on a happier past is a seemingly innocuous activity, ‘the bonds between those who belong to the remembered time are strengthened – they all feel at home – while for those who do not, their separation becomes all the more pronounced.’[3]

For those who used to ‘feel at home’, “normal” can be defined as a monoculture of predominantly white middle class, middle aged, neurotypical and able-bodied persons. As we settle in to our “new normal”, it is vital that we re-imagine beyond our harmful and unrepresentative monocultural society. ‘Not Going Back to Normal’ is a project by artists Harry Josephine Giles and Sasha Saben Callaghan that reimagines disabled artists at the centre of the arts in Scotland. Commissioned pre-COVID-19, the project highlights the overwhelming able-bodied bias in the art world, that has become even more evident during the pandemic. ‘Suddenly, many of the access measures disabled people had been calling for decades – remote working, unconditional income support, online events as standard – were possible, where previously we were told they were just too difficult.’[4] As Khairani Barokka confirms, ‘The art world to come… should be geared towards anti-imperialism, anti-ableism and a world of art that protects all that it has long made vulnerable.’[5]

Since March, galleries and artists have begun using Twitch, Zoom, etc. to screen films and stream performances, in a very the-show-must-go-on-at-any-cost vibe. On the shortcomings of irl presented url, Morgan Quaintance summises that we must treat the digital image with the same attention as the physical object, ‘instead of treating it as a poor second to physical space… so that the affective possibilities of this one-to-one medium can finally be unleashed.’ We intended to show a couple of Quaintance’s films in the gallery earlier this year but postponed due to the pandemic. Ironically, I had suggested to him that we screen the works online (he was unable to do this because they were being premiered at film festivals), but I agree that the need for curatorial rigour is paramount, and consideration of context is key- digital works don’t automatically translate directly into different sites just because they have a fluidity of medium.

Utilising the online to reach new and pre-existing audiences is more important than ever. As Quaintance says, ‘In our present quarantined realities, where anxiety, flat affect and depression frequently suffocate… the need to produce avenues of encounter outside the new normal is now arguably paramount.’ However, I think we need to take more care in planning, actively embrace less capitalist tendencies, and not produce solely for production’s sake. A platform that avoids such panic is the multifaceted and generous website Flatness curated by Shama Khanna, that features a work by international artists and guest curators, with comments section in which anyone can post[6]. In line with this ethos of openness, I plan to create a considerate new strand of digital programming at David Dale which is currently dependent on some funding that I’ve just applied for so, *fingers crossed*.

Another relic of art world past that I think we should question is exhibition openings. In an early-days-of-the-pandemic article for Frieze, Pablo Larios cited Hamja Ahsan ‘Shy Radicals’ as a handbook for reimagining how we interact with art and each other.[7] In the satirical yet serious manifesto, Ahsan appeals for an end to ‘extrovert supremacy’, where we can experience a ‘freedom from small talk… freedom from enforced jollity’.[8] Back to Callaghan and Giles- ‘Social events like salons and launches are extremely difficult to deal with and the ableist concept of ‘working the room’ causes anxiety.’ In ‘A White Institution’s Guide for Welcoming Artists of Colour and their Audiences’[9], artist Fannie Sosa observes that, ‘People that can come to cultural events on, say, at 4pm on a friday are people that are not at work/caring for children—-> white people. Be ready to tackle these issues by proactively researching what are the structural barriers that exclude local people of color.’[10]

Again, thanks to the internet we can say goodbye to exclusive structures such as the Friday evening or Saturday afternoon opening! See ‘Transmissions’, curated by Anne Duffau, Tai Shani and Hana Noorali, a fantastic live programme of films, poetry and performance aired on Twitch on Wednesday evening at 9pm and again on Friday morning at 10am, and with a chat feature that allows for live discussion.[11] An expansion of this idea, would be to store recordings of events online for audiences to watch back later free from Zoom Doom from the comfort of their sofas. At David Dale, I would like to develop new methods of interaction, for the sake of COVID-19 regulations but also to mitigate the pressure to perform, and make the programme a more welcoming environment. The nomenclature of private view enforces an elitism, but when all the codes are laid bare it leaves much less room for potential marginalisation.

To continue in the spirit of dismantling harmful structures, it is vital that we continue to examine how racism and discrimination is upheld in our institutions. Over the last few months, we, white arts workers and galleries, have experienced another re-awakening.[12] It is important for us white folk to remember that doing anti-racist work is not a box that can be ticked on an End of Project Monitoring Form, but an ongoing messy process of untangling. As a method for untangling, Sara Ahmed speaks of ‘complaint as diversity work’.[13] We must learn to welcome complaint, and to make complaints on behalf of those who are unable to. We must ‘get in the way’.[14] In June, Jemma Desai shared, ‘This Work Isn’t For Us’, a paper/Google Doc exploring ‘how diversity-led initiatives such as policy, professional development and public programming meets with the lived experience of the cultural workers who are embodied in difference.’[15] The paper is an emotionally charged academic attempt to untangle, a 170 page-long complaint.

We must acknowledge our colonial legacies. Our namesake David Dale, born in 1739, was a Scottish industrialist, a “good” philanthropist, and the founder of New Lanark, a cotton spinning mill village. Built in 1786, with the guidance of Industrial Revolution entrepreneur Richard Awkwright, New Lanark was once heralded as a socialist utopia for its progressive educational provisions. Dale also played a significant role in the abolitionist movement in Scotland, founding the Glasgow Society which in 1791 ‘instituted for the purpose of co-operating with the other Societies in Great Britain, in their endeavours to effect the Abolition of the African Slave Trade’.[16] However seemingly utopian New Lanark was, the part that the village and Dale played in the transatlantic trade of enslaved peoples to farm cotton is indisputable. It is necessary to query this history and how we actively uphold it. Should we follow the lead of the arts centre formally known as Witte de With in Rotterdam? Named after the 17th century Dutch Naval officer, the centre has undergone a rigorous re-naming process over the past two years, and is now named Kunstinstituut Melly after an art work by Ken Lum that was permanently installed on the gallery’s façade in 1990. Kunstinstituut Melly have re-imagined their site with an intersectional approach, acknowledging the full breadth of its history. Their re-naming illustrates a dedication to maintaining, ‘accountability, vulnerability, [and] responsiveness, and to ensure that we continue to become a more welcoming and daring cultural institution into the future.’[17]

In order to create a fairer society and to transform our institutions, we need collectivity and to champion our multiplicities, differences, that which makes us human. In June, Jade Montserrat, Cecilia Wee, Michelle Williams Gamaker and Tae Ateh published a text that appealed for radical change against the neo-liberal individualism that our society advocates, and our institutions replicate. ‘We propose that an anti-racist, anti-capitalist, anti-fossil fuel, anti-nuclear and anti-war, decolonialised, restructured cultural landscape can be achieved through genuine self-reflection, the application of change in real terms and an engagement with hard work and hard truths.’[18]  In order to re-imagine our ‘cultural landscape’ we must look to the freedom and togetherness that art making itself can offer us. Lola Olufemi speaks of how art can generate empathy by allowing us ‘to articulate how difference underscores our lives’.[19] She speaks of the importance of affect, how art can produce a visceral and potent ability to be moved, that ‘feeling is a way of knowing and a powerful starting point for building a political framework.’

To return to Boym, and the second type of nostalgia that she identifies, reflective nostalgia, she imitates that, ‘considering the future makes us take responsibility for our nostalgic tales.’ This text is no longer a nostalgic longing for long hot summers in the courtyard. It is no longer a reflection on the past ten years, or at least the last five that I’ve been at David Dale Gallery, or the last three in which I’ve been programming events and working directly with artists and curators. But it is an imagining of what could be done next. In this text, I have pointed to the words of people who have said things better and for much longer, in order to share and unlearn, expose my own complicity and encourage conversation. I want to incorporate this openness into every piece of what we do at David Dale- from exhibition openings to relationships with artists, both url and irl. I have not written a detailed list of actions, a newsletter or a pledge, but an internal dialogue of mainly open-ended questions- some with answers but most will require continuous debate. This text is not a BLM statement but a statement of intentions to avoid a convenient amnesia. This text is a messy, inconvenient and vital conversation starter.

As bell hooks proclaims in ‘Art on My Mind’, ‘Art constitutes one of the rare locations where acts of transcendence can take place and have wide-ranging transformative impact.’[20]


[1] Svetlana Boym, Nostalgia, Atlas of Transformation,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Samuel Earle, The Politics of Nostalgia, Jacobin Magazine,

[4] Harry Josephine Giles and Sasha Saben Callaghan, Not Going Back to Normal,

[5] Khairani Barokka, How to Make Art in a Pandemic?, Art Monthly, Issue 437: June 2020, 

[6] Flatness, curated by Shama Khanna,

[7] Pablo Larios, Why Covid-19 Might Be Our Chance to Reimagine the Arts, 2020,

[8] Hamja Ahsan, Shy Radicals: The Anti-Systemic Politics of the Militant Introvert, 2017, Book Works

[9] Fannie Sosa, A White Institution’s Guide for Welcoming Artists of Colour and their Audiences,

[10] Ibid.

[11] Transmissions, curated by Anne Duffau, Tai Shani and Hana Noorali, 2020,

[12] In the words of academic and activist Janine François, at the murder of George Floyd in May, ‘It was as if white people had “discovered” police brutality for the first time and the last six years of Black Lives Matter existing just simply did not happen.’, Janine Francois, 2020,

[13] Sara Ahmed, On Complaint, 2018,

[14] Ibid.

[15] Jemma Desai, This Work Isn’t for Us, 2020,*Cr_BWoXMV_12xLw-krbgcg#

[16] David Dale: an abolitionist cotton magnate, Legacies of Slavery in Glasgow Museums and Collections,

[17] Call us Kunstinstituut Melly, 2020,

[18] We need collectivity against structural and institutional racism in the cultural sector, Jade Montserrat, Cecilia Wee, Michelle Williams Gamaker and Tae Ateh, 2020,

[19] Lola Olufemi, Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power, Pluto Press, 2020; p. 86

[20] bell hooks, Art on My Mind, The New Press, 1995; p. 8



‘Aedificare et Communicare’, Mural, David Dale Gallery. 

What Could David Dale Do Now?
Morgan Quaintance (Artist)

The Context

Perhaps since the late 1960s and Conceptual art’s various assaults on the sanctity and perceived neutrality of contemporary art galleries and museums, suspicion has been the proper way to regard accounts of art institutions that carry with them a whiff of the utopic. The myth of the ideal gallery space as some context-less and apolitical void, free from all the power relations governing society, was more or less exposed as another humanist construct. The white cube? That apex of aesthetic disinterestedness made material, was shown to be far from a kind of architectural ideal, a space within which visitors (or shall we say ‘spectators’) could connect with their innate and natural propensity to recognise the most beautiful creations of civilized and reasonable minds. 

Mapping a process of contemporary disenchantment, you could start with Brian O’Doherty’s series of three Artforum articles published in 1976 – now gathered together under the title ‘Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space’. Then, you could end with the various assaults on the enduring conservatism of galleries that are mounted today; a series of attacks regularly launched from the ‘margins’ that characterise galleries as locations centring a system of upper class, white, male, and heteronormative socio-cultural and political values. Both of these characterisations would be right. But, as always, there is another way to look at art institutions today, and the last ten years of austerity have something to do with it. 

When the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition came to power at the start of the 2010s, they initiated a programme of public spending cuts that had seriously damaging (and at times devastating) effects across health, housing, benefit provisions and the arts. On the surface of things austerity was deployed to decrease the post-2008 financial crisis budget deficit. In reality the ConDem reduction in public spending was an ideological decision, proceeding with the Conservatives long-term philosophy of basically ‘privatising the world’ (to borrow the title of Oliver Letwin’s 1988 book) kick started when Thatcher came to power in 1979. 

The consequence of thirty years of this, plus ten years of austerity has left almost zero space for grass roots self-determination and organisation in the 2020s. This is a complex phenomenon with many contributing factors, but one of the primary ones is the lack of available and affordable space. Space to live in, space to organise in, space to congregate in, and finally space to show work in, each of these has all but disappeared as a consequence of the last forty years.  Now almost by default, public gallery spaces have become some of the last locations where some semblance of radical activity could take place. But instead of fighting to enact this possibility, the vast majority of spaces are running to private finance for support. Of course, we’re talking small to medium sized spaces here, larger institutions like national galleries and museums are already completely beholden to countless social, economic and political forces that are constraining activity, thought, progression and institutional change. Smaller spaces with access to public funds, spaces that ostensibly operate as locations in which difficult to monetise, avant-garde, and intellectually and politically challenging activity takes place, have a chance to do things differently. They can actually become interstitial locations loosed (or at least attempting to free themselves) from the economic imperatives of contemporary life, something akin to one of Hakim Bey’s ‘temporary autonomous zones’ (temporary in the sense that people visit and experience activity within those spaces for short amounts of time and do not live there.)

Of course, this brings us back to that other, newer gallery space myth: the gallery as a laboratory for creativity, the institution as sanctuary for difficult ideas, radical politics and suturing social rifts. To put it briefly (because I’ve written about it in depth elsewhere*), this is the mantra of those new conservative organisations and individuals who are engaged in the performance of progression via programmes of virtue signalling. This is a practice decades-deep, and so thickly layered in denial and the psychic deferment of cognitive dissonance, that those artists and arts professionals engaged in the pretence of action truly believe they are not. In the coming decade spaces the size of David Dale have the opportunity to actually be progressive where new conservative institutions and individuals simply act the part.  With that in mind, here are five recommendations that, I think, could help the gallery to fulfil that possible future in 2020.


The Recommendations

1. Avoid corporate sponsorship, philanthropic patronage and public private partnerships.

I think it was French writer Honoré de Balzac who wrote something like, ‘behind every great fortune is a great crime’. That’s also a great generalisation. Not every fortune is the product of ill-gotten gains, but so far, more or less every fortune funding the art world (from the Sacklers’ to the Zabludowicz’s) seems to be. Still, it’s not just a question of so-called ‘dirty money’, it’s also a question of whether or not you support notions of hierarchy, societal stratification and the worst principles of capitalism. That said, the words I’ve chosen are deliberate: ‘avoid’ instead of ‘never take’. I’m advocating a vigilance here, that seems to be missing in the ‘artists have got to eat’ rationalisation. A position so far used to excuse institutional partnerships with Elizabeth Murdoch’s Freelands Foundation, mixing it up with Leonard Blavatnik, or writing for and working with the off-shore accounting, art world monopoly that is Frieze (AKA Denmark Street Limited). 

2. Consider class

At the moment there’s lots of talk about centring the margins, but very little talk about class. The result is that we’re getting a lot of people speaking from and for this so-called margin who are privately educated, upper or middle class and relatively privileged. Again, I’m not demonising those who have, I’m just calling attention to the preservation of monoculture by other means. So instead of an art world with only middle class white people in it, you’ve now got an art world with middle class white, black, gay, straight, female, trans and whatever people in it too. Of course, their concerns are legitimate and important, but there is a real concerted effort here in Britain to just kind of erase the existence of the working class. First this is done by doubting the credentials of people who claim that is what they are; second, arts professionals just pretend the working class don’t exist. 

This actually happened to me once. At an exhibition opening in London I asked an Arts Council England officer why ACE’s recent diversity report didn’t have the white working class in it. He actually retorted, ‘well where are they?’ That was a genuine response. I mentioned the ‘white working class’ not because that’s the only legitimate category, but because for an ACE report that bracketed the disenfranchised into nearly every category under the sun, I was surprised that class didn’t factor into their evaluation anywhere, and neither did the white working class, the most widely accepted characterisation of that social position.

3. Allow the space for a wider variety of ideas (local and international) to enter circulation through the gallery.

The work of artists and those that display, write about or facilitate their work is usually intellectually supported by various bodies of fairly esoteric knowledge. However, over the past few years the scope of that knowledge, and the geographical locations from which that knowledge comes from have narrowed considerably. Sure the World Wide Web is wide open (relatively), and you can theoretically find almost anything you like. However, it’s also true that in order to find ‘whatever you like’ you have to be aware of what you’re looking for in the first place. Or, you at least have to be travelling along hyperlinked territory on a themed search that is going to allow stumbling onto some fortuitously ‘random’ bit of information. 

I suppose what I’m advocating here is running a programme that brings into the gallery (through talks, events and screenings) ideas and cultural production that really comes from a wide variety of places. The mediums through which this is done don’t have to be ground breaking or radical. The content is the thing. What’s happening in Lagos? What’s happening in Manila? What’s happening in Hiroshima? Too often we only receive reports of these places through a kind of journalistic lens. But what about culture, creativity and philosophy?  Aesthetics too. I’d love to hear people discussing contemporary aesthetics seriously, and not just rehashing Kant’s Critique of Judgement. 

Then there’s science, sociology, ethnography, and martial arts. All of these areas get covered through the dry universe of online podcasts, but very few make their way into the gallery. Why shouldn’t they? There’s a brilliant online video of a presentation on Filipino Martial Arts by Dan Inosanto. It’s absolutely fantastic. Each fighting form is introduced and contextualized so that it actually becomes as much about Filipino cultural history as it is about self-defence. The talk took place at the Smithsonian, but imagine being in a small space with this genius man! You can watch the clip through this link: 

4. Connect with the past.

Over the past decade a new career opportunity has emerged for what I refer to as the ‘perpetually overlooked artist’. They are those artists that are always somehow presented as being ‘overlooked’ or passed over. Their ‘re-emergence’ has the added effect of also righting some past institutional wrong. Meanwhile, there are other histories that are still genuinely forgotten or continually passed over. Unsurprisingly they tend to be of an aesthetically radical, uncompromising or political nature. I think it will be worth keeping an eye out for and supporting the reconsideration of these. The point isn’t just to lavish praise on someone or something that didn’t get their due. The point is to bring ideas and individuals back into circulation who should have had a transformative effect on the contemporary art world in the first place. 

5. More open-ended commissions and opportunities.

Themed opportunities and commissions are great, but sometimes the best work is produced where there is not a fixed expectation or outcome. Giving artists, writers and curators the space to do things within an open-ended framework will, I think, lead to some truly interesting results.


* The New Conservatism: Complicity and the UK Art World’s Performance of Progression, Morgan Quaintance, e-flux conversations, 24th October 2017; 

Michael White, Max Slaven and Ralph Mackenzie, Brook Street, David Dale Gallery, 2009

The Devil and David Dale
Michael White (Co-Director, Celine Gallery and Artist, Glasgow)

The tendency to assign category is common. Things must be named in order to give discourse meaning enough that conversational momentum is achieved without becoming stuck in the quandary of rationalising definition. All too often, these attempts to couch an act or event in language that describes a moment, culturally or politically do not adequately fulfil our sense of what a thing IS or how it functions and almost always betrays complexity. Many of us have battled our way through philosophical texts where the effort to contend with preliminary definition of terms that frame an argument become so exhausting that we give up before the actual question providing the thrust of the work is established. Therefore, it becomes hard to deny the necessity of such concessions to simplification, lest we get lost in a never ending cycle of semantic engineering. However, as the adage goes, “The devil is in the detail”! We live in a tumultuous political landscape where complex discussions have been reduced to problematic binaries, YES, NO, Leave, Remain, Labour, Tory, Red, Blue, Right, Left, Right, Wrong. The concession to simplicity has been far too generous. The willingness to define has brought us an unremittingly reductive logic and it would seem we are paying a price for it.

In today’s so-called “Free Market”, the illusion of choice is concocted by the creeping bureaucratisation of everyday life. For example, you can change utilities suppliers, but the freedom of the market is such that the supplier is at liberty to make the move quite difficult. Simple endeavours are subject to protracted discussions as one struggles to converse with parties that hold the required authority; to adjust an erroneous bill, report a missed bin collection or seek to have an outstanding invoice paid timeously. Modern life is now lubricated by so many “conveniences” that the tedium of such phone calls, or help desk chats with bots populate existence to a greater extent than anything that moderately resembles convenience. Such structures are maintained to protect the interests of capital and defer responsibility from “service providers” to the “the service user”, deploying the logic of category to maintain, rationalise and justify an inflexibility designed to grind down one’s willingness to participate in rectifying an issue in their favour. Attempts at such correction are often subject to a complaints procedure outlined by the “service provider” and explained at their discretion as you embark on the process, designed to be downright tedious.

For those of us with a keen interest in the arts, our passions are often pursued with a sense that the field presents an alternative to such monotony, that we are provided a space for discussion and expression which other aspects of our shared culture do not afford us. This may be true to the passive consumer but for those who attempt the foolhardy mission of trying to piece together some kind living from the field, it soon becomes clear that the logic of category which make “customer service” departments so difficult to navigate pervades the landscape of the arts in a redolent fashion under the guise of professionalisation. Artists navigate the tangled web of directors, curators, producers, marketing officers, events’ coordinators, public engagement officers, their narratives are often molded to satiate the remit of these profligate professionals in order to appease the ideological endeavours of the various funding bodies who monitor and sustain their activity. At the end of the day the artist is left to pick the carcass that remains when everyone has been paid, and the requisite compromises to the agenda of the professional parties have been satiated.

David Dale Gallery is not a magical place untouched by such banalities, it is after all a cultural problem, it permeates all aspects of our existence. However, it is a lean organisation making it flexible allowing it to maintain a fluidity that defies category without explicitly determining this as a goal in itself. In principle it appears to maintain an openness of structure which tolerates potential in a fashion that is unfortunately rare. The vocabulary of what defines our expectations and/or the ambitions of an art space are commonly understood by how they are described or defined, we speak of; Commercial Galleries, Institutions, Art Centres, Museums, Artist Run Spaces, Project Spaces and Not-For-Profit spaces to understand the positioning of the work that we see in these spaces and, before we visit them these designations foster anticipation of the kind of work you are likely to see, situating the experience within our wider understanding of the ecology of the art worlds we occupy. David Dale doesn’t explicitly satisfy these categories, the studios above the gallery space have contributed to the sustainability of the organisation’s curatorial ambitions from its inception, they provide a collegial dynamism that roots the spaces commitment to an engagement with the cultivation and practice at all junctures it can perceivably facilitate.

Programme Director, Max Slaven’s commitment to the production of solo shows is a telling continuation of this spirit, as a home to numerous artists’ studios this choice is one that is symptomatic of an investment in artistic practice in a broad sense. The authorial inclinations of his position as a curator are kept to a minimum, the exhibitions are refined propositions, the level of polish is impressive but most importantly they are derived from an intimacy that is only achieved by a deep investment from the artists themselves. Slaven informed me some years ago as to how he preferred this method, allowing him a deeper insight into the artists and the work they make. Such is the commitment to the artists in question that what we are offered as viewers are refreshingly uncompromised iterations of the artists’ focus. This in turn sits among a plethora of other activities that have come about by negotiating an unusual second home for the organisation. A garden to the back embellishes the shared yard occupied by the galleries more industrious neighbours and a roofless annex provides an additional space where limitations have proven to be a catalyst for interesting, more temporary forms of activity which populate the organisation’s diffuse agenda. Parties, performances and pop-up dinners hosted by the cities fledgling culinary talents populate these seemingly less accommodating quarters of the former college. The building’s artisanal history is augmented by subtle, more permanent site-specific works by artists who have worked in the space throughout its ten year history.

This plethora of activity would be let down if we were to try and define it by the existing terminology or even if one was to attempt to create a new definition in its favour. Those responsible for David Dale to date have done well to defy categorisation which would inevitably rationalise grounds upon which boundaries could be established to determine its function in a more prescriptive fashion. As things stand what is important is what it does, it need not make concessions to simplification in an attempt to define itself for the benefit of others. As it grows it maintains the potential to morph into whatever it needs to be to prevent stagnation and indulge the complexity of its ambitions without compromise. This text has been written as part of an exercise to take stock of what the space has done in the last ten years and where it can go in the next ten. It’s not a prospectus or a mission statement or a manifesto, such a task would be too limiting to be of use, but it is an opportunity to reflect and project. The openness that David Dale has afforded itself is something that it needs to maintain if it has another decade in it as successful as the last. It won’t change the world, you’ll still need to waste hours talking to robots to facilitate your agency as a consumer, but as long as they resist putting a label on their activity they can indulge the respective crafts they concern themselves with in as much detail as they please with keeping the devil firmly at bay.

David Dale Gallery, 2012

Conversation between Cheryl Jones, Director of Grand Union, Birmingham, and Max Slaven, Programe Director of David Dale Gallery & Studios

January 2020

Max Slaven: So Cheryl, thanks a lot for talking with me. As you know, Grand Union and David Dale Gallery have very similar histories and trajectories. We both opened as independent volunteer-led galleries and studio spaces within a few weeks of each other ten years ago. We’re in the process of collating texts to accompany our 2019 programme. The intention of these texts is some reflection on the previous ten years, and attempt to inform a direction and tone of our future programming moving forward into the next ten years. So, I’ve come up with a few questions or topics to move the conversation on, and I’ll just get started.

Cheryl Jones: Sounds good to me.

MS: Why did you set up Grand Union?

CJ: Grand Union was set up ten years ago by a group of artists and curators looking for affordable space that could become a decent workspace, a setting for a community of people to come together and a space to present our work to the public. At that point in Birmingham there was a real lack of affordable studio space that could be used all year round if you had a practice that was more desk based, that required a dry space, or secure to store expensive equipment in. There was also a burgeoning artist-led scene, independent curators in the city just starting out and a recognition that having both studios and a project space as part of the same organisation would have a greater impact than those things as separate entities. I think one of the key things for us was that we all wanted to expand our horizons, learn from others and expand our network in a way that just wouldn’t be possible as individuals. An important aspect of the set up for me was that Grand Union wasn’t just one person’s voice, there were many different perspectives, ideas, areas of interest bouncing around, converging, overlapping, repelling and informing our various outputs.

MS: Yeh, that sounds pretty similar to us. Though for us it was as much about keeping our peer group together out of art school and having a place to work. There were some options for studios when graduating, but nothing that would keep us together to maintain a momentum that we felt we had. I think when we graduated we kind of felt that everything was a bit sewn up already, and you had to make your own space. I think this is a feeling that comes with each new generation. It was really the studios first and foremost for us though, and exhibition space came as a bit of an afterthought, though that dynamic quickly shifted.

Do you feel a particular connection or affinity with a peer group, due to how you set up? And what are your thoughts on it if so?

CJ: Yes of course, there’s a real shared history between the founding members of Grand Union, and in addition to that the people who were part of the nearly two years of conversations that led up to us opening. We spent many evenings in pubs, cafes, people’s flats, figuring out what we wanted to create and then how to actually achieve it. There are so many stories and anecdotes that probably wouldn’t have the same meaning or humour for anyone else. But you know, we also have strong connections with the people who visit, our partners and collaborators, and those who are working around us – so many artists, designers, fabricators, projects and organisations have developed alongside us. There’s like a huge spider or venn diagram of all of those peers and associates that we have different affinities or connections with.

We’ve always been conscious of how easy it is to be viewed as a clique. We’ve tried to remain open and welcoming so that people feel able to approach us and feel like they can participate in or community, but that’s a difficult thing to achieve, particularly when operating with very limited resources. Our rolling Associate Curator position came out of that ethos, ensuring new people, networks, ideas and interests are coming in and out of the organisation and feeding the artistic programme. It’s much clearer to see, after a decade has passed and we’ve learned loads, where we’ve failed and what we need to work on or change. It’s so different now, politically, economically and in our particular geographic area, it’s going to be fascinating to see what projects and organisations come out of this time, and how it will all look in 2030. Birmingham city centre, and the arts ecology here has changed dramatically over the last ten years.

You and Ellie set up David Dale – is that right? And your team of board members and staff has remained small – it would be interesting to hear about your experience of setting up and the group of people that enabled that to happen, and your connections and affinities.

MS: Ellie and I set it up with our friend, Ralph – both of whom are still on the board. I think from the outset though we were keen on having a broad range of people involved and taking on different influences. Initially all the studio holders were involved in setting up the studios and for the first five or so years we were run as a committee, which was intended to bring in other voices, democratise the process and ensure we were open and accountable. Our initial intention was to make a clean break with any perception of cliques or parochialism, so this process was part of that, as well as our programming. For various reasons this mode of management ended, but I think part of it was that I’d felt we’d achieved a position of openness and proven that we were not closed off. I now realise that this is an ongoing process, and there’ll always be new groups to connect with, to involve, and to prove your relevance to. I think we’re always trying to balance the two positions of maintaining the group that we have and reach new people.

Our staff body has always remained small due to the necessities of funding, but we’re now trying to open up the board to new people in a gradual way, trying to maintain an identity and purpose while bringing in these new voices. We’ve also tried to do this with the way we programme, with continually bringing in new artists, curators and practicioners as a way of broadening the way we work, and being less prescriptive with how this can happen.

Why are you in the area that you’re based, and does it have an impact on your work?

CJ: We had pinpointed Digbeth as the area to move to for several reasons. It was cheap and there were loads of empty warehouse spaces around. It’s a ten minute walk from the city centre and the council had designated that area as a cultural quarter in their city masterplan, something we were able to exploit in order to find some start up funding. But most importantly there were other arts organisations there, e.g. Eastside Projects had just opened up around the corner from Vivid Projects (who had a different space at that time) and Ikon Eastside (an offsite project space that no longer exists); many of the independent arts festivals, like Flatpack Film Festival and Supersonic music festival, have taken place in and around the area and have offices there. We wanted to join that community physically and grow within it.

We found a couple of different spaces, but the one we settled with at Minerva Works (an old metal works split into 19 units) presented the most scope and value for money. We took on two units to begin with, a smaller squarish space with windows down two sides for the gallery, and a larger unit which had been fire damaged, for our studios. We negotiated a very low rent because we agreed to clean it up ourselves – queue a long, cold winter of mopping and jet washing a space where every square inch was covered in sticky soot. We then worked with designer-fabricators Queen & Crawford to design and build eight studios within the envelope of the larger second unit.

Being in that space has had a huge impact on the way we work. Minerva Works is now full of tenants, including three other galleries, a ballet school, an aerial theatre company, music studios, two different fabricators, designers, and several retail units. This coupled with other new arts organisations embedding themselves in the area, has meant that we could generate an excitement about the location and attract way more people there than we could alone. This idea has been built upon with initiatives such as Digbeth First Friday – a monthly micro festival when many arts and cultural events all open on the same night, creating a trail of activity and sociable atmosphere in a setting which can be still quite intimidating to pedestrians, particularly in the evening.

Digbeth itself is a fascinating place – it’s been an industrial area since the 1800s, with the canal network and railways running through it. There are many Victorian factory buildings here, not huge in scale, all low level. Much of it is a conservation area due to its historical industrial architecture. It’s right next to the city centre, but has, until recently anyway, remained fairly undeveloped, housing many light industrial, small scale businesses. It’s a haven for artists to work amongst, there’s the ability to get so many different things fabricated on the doorstep. We can walk to speak to welders, powder-coaters, galvanisers, foam cutters, dressmakers, different types of printers, timber merchants, etc, etc.

It is also home to many social enterprises, small businesses and charities who reside there because of the cheaper rents and types of building available. We have developed close working partnerships with several, e.g. Crisis, Friends of the Earth, SIFA Fireside, St. Anne’s Hostel to name a few. We recently created a new role – Collaborative Programme Curator – within Grand Union in order to develop some of these relationships further and create strands of artistic programme that deepen our connections with our neighbourhood and connect that across our gallery programme.

MS: That chimes a lot with our process for finding the area that we’re based in. Definitely the low rent, light industrial architecture and neighbours. Though there wasn’t much cultural activity in the area when we moved here, but there has been a shift in recent years with an observable increase. There really hasn’t been the same support from the city though, our local government are still pretty focussed on culture being a city centre activity which makes it quite difficult to access support. They still see it as tied up within a tourism strategy, and I think we’re still somewhere they don’t want to send tourists! But the artistic community has been really supportive, as well as moving into the area, so the growth feels quite organic if a bit haphazard because of that.

We don’t see ourselves as a vanguard of gentrification, so it’s difficult for administrations and funders to instrumentalise us, as has happened in other parts of the city. I much prefer to think of ourselves alongside the fabricators and suppliers, that we’re just another local business serving a community. However, while the area’s great for studios and the space we can have, it does feel quite difficult sometimes to attract new audiences sometimes when you’re disconnected from other cultural activity in the city, and you’re trying to bring people into an area they’re unfamiliar with.

How are you funded, what is the makeup of the funding, and does this allow long term planning?

CJ: This one is quite dry isn’t it – shall we take it out for now and see if it’s worth adding in later?

MS: Yeh, it is – I feel it’s important though, but only what you’re comfortable with. I suppose what I’m interested in is the differences in systems between Scotland and England, the mix of self-generated funds versus grants, and the ability for change and planning. Our funding right now, for example, is very hand to mouth and very short term, so it’s difficult to focus on the horizon when your focussed on the next couple of months. Also, all of this probably won’t make the edit, as we’ll cut it down for clarity. Just think it’s good to have more to work with initially if possible.

CJ: Sure, ok let’s go for it.

Since 2018 we have been part of Arts Council England’s National Portfolio. This is a four year funding agreement which has been transformational for us in terms of planning and raising additional funding. Before we were project grant funded, so had been applying for incrementally more amounts and longer time periods. This could only ever get up to two years though and there’s a cap on how much you can apply for. ACE money makes up just under 50% of our turnover (and pretty much has since the start). The rest is made up of studio rental, project management, partnerships and consultancy work, project funding from trusts and foundations, sales of editions, and the odd donation. We’ve also just become a charity which has opened up a few more doors for fundraising.

MS: The funding mix is broadly similar to ours, we’re 50 – 60% funded by Creative Scotland, with the rest looking as you described. However, we’re still project grant funded which feels really limiting. The duration we’re funded for decreases each year, and is now down to 6 months – won’t be long until the only thing I do is write CS apps, like some Kafkaesque nightmare!

What do you think of your personal role within the organisation after 10 years?

CJ: I’m a reluctant leader! I think that comes from starting an organisation very much as a collective group, I never intended to be the director, it just kind of happened organically – I happened to be the one that could make a shift to commit more time to running GU. I think that’s been great for the organisation though, it’s meant that kind of ethos has continued throughout – that idea of many voices is really key. We now have a brilliant staff team of 6 people (we are all part time, equivalent to 3.5 full time employees), all with differing levels of responsibility, hours and pay, however everyone feels (at least I think so!) able to voice opinions about programme and there is room for everyone to contribute ideas to both the artistic programme and the organisation’s culture.

Kim McAleese became Programme Director a couple of years ago after joining us as Associate Curator in 2014. Having her manage the programme gives me more time to think about how the organisation develops (or survives!). Kim moved from Belfast so brought a whole new network and perspective with her. I think we make a good team, we’ve got complimentary skills and different sets of knowledge. It’s not perfect, I’m trying to find ways to get everyone on higher rates of pay – we’ve been building this up from nothing, so it’s a long process, and trying to get a grip of what the industry standard should be is fairly difficult.

I’m interested in looking at flatter organisational structures and whether this is something that could be implemented at Grand Union further down the line. I think that depends so much on finding a group of people that want the same thing, the same level of responsibility, etc. I don’t see myself as Director of Grand Union forever. At the moment there’s still so much change happening, we are growing as an organisation and working on a capital project that means I am learning new things every single day. When that learning or change starts to slow down it will be time for me to hand over the reigns to somebody else.

How about you, Ellie and Ralph, do you think about how the organisation might evolve, along with your roles within it? Do you talk about when might be the time to hand it over?

MS: This is something I think about a lot, and again has a lot of similarity to what you’ve said. In terms of the board, I think the continuity of the existing members is really beneficial for as long as they want to be involved, though this will be improved by involving more board members which we’re trying to do just now. In terms of my own position, it’s trying to figure out when that tipping point is, that it’s no longer of most benefit to the organisation for me to be in the same position. It doesn’t feel like we’re there yet either, but it’s something I’m revisiting regularly – but also, it needs other input, as who knows if I’ll see it when that point comes! I think in the meantime, expanding the staff we work with and the board is really important – as that plurality of voices within the organisation is really crucial. I’ve worked with Caitlin, the Programme Coordinator, for the past five years, and her input is really important to the development of the organisation. I’d like to see this continue to increase and to be able to bring in new people to inform what we do. I do feel that for this progression to happen though the organisation need to find a more stable footing with funding, there needs to be an extended period of stability to allow for this transition. That’s one of the things that I’m trying to work towards at the moment.

What is your intention with the programme?

CJ: Our programme is our way to connect with people. That might be with particular artists whose work is of interest to us, or that chimes with the values of our organisation; it might be specific organisations or groups; with the artistic community both locally and much further afield; and of course the general public who come and visit, or connect with our programme online. As I’ve mentioned, we have a number of different authors of the programme, which opens up all these different ways to connect.

Our gallery programme is led by a desire to support artists to develop their practice – the exhibitions are always new commissions and an opportunity for artists to develop a new body of work within a supportive structure that enables nurturing conversation, money and support with production. The exhibitions and the associated public programmes then give people a reason to visit us, to engage in conversation with us, the artists and each other about the related ideas and themes and create many opportunities for learning.

Our collaborative programme was born out us thinking about our role in the city. How can we be a good neighbour?  Who/what can we elevate or make stronger through collaboration? Where can we add value? And how/where can we create other types of opportunites for artists to have an impact? The work we have been engaged in so far (this programme started with the appointment of a Collaborative Programme Curator just 18 months ago) is already starting to reveal issues about the post-industrial city, in particular how art and creative practices can be crucial to thinking through inclusive and democratic approaches to how people can live and work in relation to it and affect its future. It enables us to connect with and learn from people who wouldn’t usually visit our gallery, find different opportunities for artists to create their work and to demonstrate the value that artists and art has in our society.

MS: What are your future plans for GU? You’re working on a capital project, what do you anticipate its impact as being?

CJ: We are in the process of developing the way Grand Union operates again – it’s actually a continuous cycle, we constantly review the format and structure of the programme and organisation. Since expanding our programme to reach out beyond the gallery, and expanding our staff team, we are reflecting on how we think about a holistic programme, rather than many seperate strands of activity. How can all of these different elements work alongside, crossover, compliment and converse with one another? This year we will be working together as a team to make a public statement/artwork that articulates this clearly – we’re not sure what form that will take yet, but it will be launched as part of our 10th anniversary year programme.

We have been working for the last couple of years on a capital project, to transform Junction Works, a Grade II listed building that is currently derelict, into a fully accessible arts venue that will become Grand Union’s future home. If fundraising is successful we will also purchase a 100 year lease. The building will be bigger than our space, so will mean a slightly bigger gallery, more studio space, but also include communal kitchen areas, an events and cafe space, and some office space that can be rented to provide another income stream.

We decided a few years ago that we would look at building ownership as part of developing a sustainable business model – generating more opportunity for rental income and getting out of precarious short lease/low rent spaces that are regularly threatened by the cycles of the property market. Junction Works presented itself as a golden opportunity just at the right time – we have a brilliant board member who has helped push this forward – Jon Andrews – who has a career in property development. He was able to show us the opportunity and give us the tools, contacts and confidence to go for it. We’re still in the midst of a long project, we now have a set of initial architectural designs, planning permission and are working with Homes England to present an artistic programme displayed in the windows and on the exterior of the building. We became a charity last year in order to help push forward with the fundraising. Once we have financial commitments in place we envisage the work taking around a year to complete, so we could be in by 2022, but watch this space!

As well as strengthening the business side of GU, inhabiting a fully accessible, heated building will have a huge impact on our work and its accessiblity. Our studios are on the first floor of a building with no lift, and the gallery on the 2nd floor. Our gallery also has no heating (or insulation). Our current building is earmarked for demolition in the next 5 years, so there has been no chance of investment to make these changes here. As we develop new relationships across the city, we create more connections and increase our profile, we feel it’s so important to be able to host meetings/events/meals that don’t exclude anyone.

One of the biggest impacts we hope to see from the project is more visbility for artists and contemporary visual arts in the city. Junction Works is a stone’s throw from where the new HS2 station will be. Whatever your position on that, it will transform this area we are situated in. Rather than be pushed out as property prices increase, we want to stake our claim as a key contributer to Digbeth and its identity as a cultural quarter. At the moment you really need to know we’re here to find us – you wouldn’t walk past our building and think, “ooh, look there’s a free public gallery to visit here, oh and there’s artist studios.” The new building will change that perception, and become another welcoming space that you can inhabit, engage with ideas, find ways to get involved and not have to spend any money. Our cities desperately need more of those.

MS: What would you like GU to do in the next 10 years, what would you hope for the sector, and what would you like to see in David Dale (as a sister organisation). What can make that happen?

CJ: I think we’re all going to have to work really hard over the next decade to contribute to making the world a much less bleak place. There’s much to be done and we can only achieve it by working together – that’s with our own sector, but also joining forces well outside of that. We shouldn’t underestimate the contribution we could make. Our key skill as artists, curators, performers, etc, is revealing ideas and issues through storytelling and opening up conversation about them. We need to find ways to open and facilitate difficult conversations with people outside of our usual comfort zones. I hope that Grand Union and similar organisations like yours can make a real impact on social justice issues – something we are focussing on currently is the housing crisis. We can use our skills and networks to find new ways to shine a light on this issue, connect people and organisations and facilitate creating potential solutions in collaboration with the people directly affected.

In order to do this big work, we need to ensure artists have time and the resources they need to make their work. It’s crucial that artists are seen as a vital part of society. I think as organisations and institutions we have a responsibility to work on behalf of artists to demonstrate this as far and wide as we can – in schools, in business, everywhere. But also to turn this inwards, make sure that artists are at the centre of our organisations, and join/elevate the good practices that are out there in order to dismantle the bad.

MS: Elevate the good and dismantle the bad, sounds about right to me. Thanks!


Back Yard, David Dale Gallery, 2019.

Max Slaven (Programme Director, David Dale Gallery)

2019 is the 3rd year that David Dale Gallery have created a thematic framework to position our exhibitions programme. Leading up to our 10th anniversary in 2020, these themes have utilised areas of the organisation’s estate as a proposition for both the artists we work with, and for audiences. The themes have existed as an anchor for the programme, and are intended to offer an insight into the threads and commonalities underpinning the programme. In 2017 the theme was Annex, 2018 was Garden, and 2019 was Site. The intention of Site was to take a broad view of what the gallery is and what it can be. By taking the entirety of the gallery as inspiration, we were not only looking at the space we use, and which constitutes the organisation – the gallery, kitchen, toilets, store rooms – but also the organisation’s practices, capacities, our non-physical space. This has focussed on the gallery, as metonym for the organisation, but has tried to encompass more than that – a single image of the organisation, to look at where we are and where we can go / what we are and what we can become.

In previous years these annuals have had a similar format, they collate the exhibitions of the year into one place, so that they can be read sequentially. And to sit between them, we have commissioned texts, which are intended to occupy the conceptual space between them – to link them, and draw out threads that connect them. This year follows a similar pattern, however, for the commissioned texts, writers were asked to offer thoughts on the direction of the gallery for the coming ten years, and what they would like to see.

These texts were commissioned in a very different world to the one I write this introduction in. When approaching the writers the country had just elected a conservative government by a landslide majority. This would mean that Brexit was now inevitable, and both these things were much to the dismay of the cultural sector in the UK. This informed the tone of much of the writing within the publication. Now, as I write the introduction, the same Prime Minister is in intensive care, suffering from Covid-19, a virus which has changed much of how we live. This pandemic has necessitated a worldwide shutdown of pretty much everything, our gallery being no exception.[1] So, as the gallery is closed, I am writing about a space which is inaccessible, it is a building that has shut before, but we’ll re-open as it has done in the past.

The building at 161 Broad Street was built in 1936 as a welfare office[2], as welfare approaches changed and requirements became different the building was closed and reopened as a college post-war. Firstly, as David Dale College, then as the College of Building and Printing. As the college consolidated its campus, the building closed and sat empty for a further ten years until it was taken over as the gallery and studios, moving round the corner from Rev. Watson’s hall.[3] We have taken a piece of each of these histories on, welfare and education, in what we do and hopefully they can inform us further as we go forward.

There have been five exhibitions within the Site programme, and all have engaged with the year’s theme in a different capacity. The themes aren’t prescriptive, they’re a guide. So their connections are also left open to interpretation. The programme began in February in Milan, with Lauren Gault’s exhibition[4], an exhibition which developed from an organisational exchange, and which had to negotiate a new space in a new context, with its own distinct histories. Our first exhibition of the programme in our gallery was by Rolf Nowotny[5]. The transformative installation created a new imagined space within the gallery. A twilight landscape disjointed from any previous physical aspects of the space. Next, floors became walls and we hosted Morgan Quaintance’s exhibition[6], a reimagining of an exhibition held in two other venues previously, and a new exercise for the organisation in working through previously commissioned work, and maintaining and supporting an ongoing dialogue. KRM Mooney’s exhibition[7] followed the opposite logic to Nowotny’s exhibition, foregrounding the gallery, its supposed neutrality and in the process reducing it to elements, in focus, but diffuse. And to end the year we began a new exchange, hosting Robertas Narkus on behalf of Rupert, Vilnius[8].

Towards the end of the year we began to renovate the front hallway, a previously relatively neglected space, considering the on going work elsewhere in the building over the past seven years. The slow process became something of a metaphor for how we work. Revealing historical elements and fitting new pieces amongst it – attempting to be sympathetic to our histories, complimenting it, though not obscuring or fetishizing. And no longer attempting to appear neutral, or vacant. In the process of renovation, a tiled coat of arms was uncovered, produced presumably by students for the College of Building and Printing. The coat of arms, based on Glasgow’s is inscribed with the motto Edificare et Communicare – Building & Communication, as good a motto as any for us to inherit.

This annual is a review, but is intended to offer some suggestions for the future. Initially, this was intended to be through the texts that were written to accompany the publication. However, this necessity has been brought into sharp focus by both the Covid pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020, and it is clear that we cannot work the same as we previously have. And that doesn’t just apply to us. The outcomes of this aren’t ones that can become apparent quickly, or can necessarily be accomplished, but I hope that this marks a change moving forward in how we work, and with whom we work. That this can be more thoughtful, equitable and beneficial.

[1] The gallery and studio closed on 16th March 2020, a couple of days before being mandated to by the government. The studios reopened 29th June 2020, with no exhibitions or events planned until 2021
[2] The building was built as divisional office 2 for Glasgow Corporation’s welfare Department, during a relatively brief period that Local Authorities were responsible for health and welfare, and before the formation of the NHS.
[3] See text for Rolf Nowotny’s exhibition Dementia
[4] Lauren Gault, O-n, The Workbench, Milan, 22.02 – 31.02.19
[5] Rolf Nowotny, Dementia, 05.04 – 11.05.19
[6] Morgan Quaintance, Hysteresis, 15.06 – 20.07.19
[7] K.R.M Mooney, Ores, 20.09 – 26.10.19
[8] Robertas Narkus, Prospect Revenge, Curated by Rupert, Vilnius, 09.11 – 14.12.19