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