Gavin Wade at Eastside Projects

  Karl England  
September 2016

Gavin Wade outside Eastside Projects / 2016 / photo André de Jong

Eastside Projects, an artist-run gallery, has sought to influence and shape the creative landscape of Birmingham since its launch in 2008. With Gavn Wade at the helm, today Eastside Projects is managed by a ttal of five company directors: Ruth Claxton, Simon and Tom Bloor, Celine Condorelli and James Langdon.

Gavin, when you came to create Eastside Projects you must have felt you were answering a need within Birmingham?

I moved back to Birmingham, from London, in 2004 because I thought there were a lot of artists here who were starting to become visible and I thought I could connect with them, and connect them with other people. After a period of time I realised that there was an opportunity to create a new space, we identified a huge gap in provision. When Eastside Projects opened, it doubled the capacity of contemporary art in the city and it created, in a way, a different type of institution: an artist run institution. Something unusual about us perhaps was that all the people involved were quite experienced, either as artists or as curators, so we already brought with us quite a big network, and on top of that we were quite strategic about how we were going to put Eastside Projects together. You could say it was a fairly refined birth, if I can use that word. From the start we brought with us a refined manifesto of what we wanted to achieve and how we wanted to fill the gap in the city, how we wanted to expand and grow contemporary art in Birmingham, which is an ongoing challenge.

Many artist run projects find the idea of being or becoming an institution, or institutionalised, problematic. Eastside Projects seems to be actively becoming part of the Birmingham’s establishment. Are you conscious of the position you occupy? Is it strategic?

I think that, if you want to change a city you have to be very conscious of what kind of structure you are and how that compliments the other kind of institutional organisations and publics in the area. However, you do have to speak – to an extent – a language that synchronises with other entities. We often do that as an attempt to then try and change the bigger institution that is Birmingham – by acting as a small intervention into it. We wanted to change the way one might approach public art in the city, and how developing a relationship with the city council could enable that. It was a matter of putting out messages and mythologising on our part, to an extent, to say ‘we can do this!’, ‘we make a difference!’ Until enough people start to believe it and then they invite you in, because they, actually, are also in the job of trying to improve the city and make a difference, make changes, get rid of bits of the city that don’t work and try to introduce new ones. Sometimes it’s hard to see that but actually that’s what politicians and civil servants and people that sit on the city council are all doing. When we come up with a good idea they’re actually happy to call on us to get involved. At the moment I’m involved in writing the core public art strategy for the city. This level of investment is exactly where we’d hoped Eastside Projects would be able to position itself, so we can try and then project our ethos into those policies. Although, even once you’re at the table, it’s really not that easy!

Following on from this notion of strategically using what you’ve got to get something, most artist-run spaces tend not to be commercially focused. However as artists and curators we want to be financially sustainable. There is a perceived incompatibility. Referencing this in 2013 you staged an exhibition called Trade Show which was a critique of the commercialisation of art. But also Eastside Projects does participate in commercial art fairs, so you’re clearly not oppositional to the commercial art world. How do you resolve this supposed standoff?

My take on it is that art is inherently an exchange, and so it is inherently commercial, it has a commercial aspect to it, and that is because art can be anything in relation to anything, anywhere, at any time. So of course it’s going to do commercial things, it’s going to reflect on commercial activity. And I think that over the last hundred years, commercial galleries have been as important to the development of contemporary art as have public museums as have artist-run spaces. So I think you look at what is good about each of those models because each of those models fundamentally drives and questions why people make art. None of them are oppositional, they are all actually complimentary, they all fit together to support what artists do. Many artists operate between all three of those spheres: museum, gallery and artist run projects. What was strategic about our initiative was that we did something with the gallery that criticised the negative aspects of all three of those spheres. One of the things they might share a tendency towards is a sense of the white cube as a neutrality, or a default position, and so we would make a space that would try and not be neutral and try not to be a default by building in the best non-whitecube aspects of each of those. I think we have to do art fairs and we have to try and sell art as much as we have to try and affect Birmingham’s cultural policy. They go hand in hand, you shouldn’t exclude any of them. I think it’s a weird anomaly that certain types of public support of art exclude this commercial aspect, or that it’s seen as dirty if it dabbles, or that commercial galleries aren’t doing a public good. Actually, they are – dealers are really inventive, supportive people who are a part of the artist’s life.

There is a strong narrative that we hear here [in the UK] about the arts proximity to commerciality which suggests that the closer you get to commercial success the less critical validity you have. In many areas and countries galleries and artists can’t afford to think like that as they don’t have access to state funding in the way many do here. However you finance your practice there are innate pressures that accompany it, how do you feel financial pressures – from wherever - affect artists output?

Artists want to survive and they want to be successful, they want to come up with ideas that last forever, they want to change the world to some degree, so they’re going to do things on impulse and sometimes it might even be that you have to have a little greed in you to be able to follow through your ideas in the way that artists do. You have to have a little bit of selfishness and self belief and that can sometimes look like being some sharkish business type person. It is about getting that balance right and checking yourself: ‘Am I becoming a shark?’ and ‘Am I doing it for the public good?’

Finally, on your website there are two lines in particular that are brilliant and I think not often heard. They are: ‘We do not make art for the public, we are the public that make art’ and ‘The artist run space is not a stop-gap. The artist run space is a public good.’ What do these phrases mean to you?

They were both moments of realisation for me but they were also messages to myself to remember and to make sure that I’m not making Eastside Projects just for my career. I’m not doing it to make me more successful, I’m doing it because it is the career, it is the goal. I’ve often thought that when artist- run spaces are set up early on, they are places where you experiment, where you learn, where you make your career and then they fall away, and your career might become something else. In some way I felt like doing some of that experimenting earlier on, creating a space that is still about experimentation but is also a realisation that this is the goal, this is it. The Artist-run space should be the pinnacle, it should be the thing that everyone is trying to do, every big art institution in the world should want to be an artist run space, rather than the other way round. It was a message to myself. I don’t imagine that artists aren’t part of society: we are a vital element of society, we aren’t outside it, we are it, and that’s what that message is about: we are the public that makes art. We don’t want to be oppositional, this idea of ‘don’t give money to art, we could spend it on health’ is to misunderstand the relationship between health and art. You invest in art because it will reflect on and ultimately connect into ideas of health or education or an other aspect of society. It will feed into it, it will support it.

This reminds me of evaluation questions about public engagement. Obviously funders want you to reach out beyond the initiated, which is understandable, but at the same time if we say we got ten thousand people through the doors over a weekend – that’s not nothing, artists and the art- world are also the public.

What you really want is a city where people have the time to think about the future, to think about how society is working, and you will need art for that. The people who don’t have time, the people whose lives are tough because society is not actually serving them: they’re the last people going through the door. Ultimately I want to affect my city so everyone will benefit, not because it will then save people’s lives and change them – but because it already has, it already has affected them, and then new publics will come and find art because now they’ve got time, now they’re living a better life, which means we’d change with it, we’d have to adapt what we are too, which sounds pretty grandiose but I think these things are fundamentally achievable. s

  Eastside Projects has been an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation since its inception in 2008 in partnership with Birmingham City University.      Eastside Projects