Building on our recent article: ‘Lancashire Lollygag - Goin Places Doin Bits’
We’ve had a really strong response to our recent blog post ‘Lancashire Lollygag - Goin Places Doin Bits’, both negative and positive. We wanted to share one of those responses below, to make information that’s been shared with us public, alongside acknowledging that this is an ongoing conversation. We’re big believers in having tough conversations, to stretch and be stretched by the people we collaborate with, this is where learning happens (though it’s not always comfortable).
A few notes from the Short Supply Team:
We had several discussions as a team with the author prior to the posting of this article, as we were concerned about it’s impact - in this instance, we thought it more detrimental to censor the voice of our writer in residence, over encouraging an (albeit challenging) conversation. We stand by this decision, as we try to opt for the more the merrier, as opposed to one sole ‘correct’ voice (which is also why we’re really glad we’ve been challenged).
The author of this article (James McColl, our writer in residence during Goin Places, Doin Bits) at the time of writing, was a practising artist living in Lancashire. By this, to undermine the factuality of his writing overlooks his in depth knowledge, that comes from a place of lived experience. Though the different points he raises will be more or less clear, true, or urgent to different people, it’s worth considering that this is a sentiment that others share.
The enthusiasm for protecting the reputation of these places, by artists and art workers, is hugely encouraging. The challenges and concerns that have been raised in emails and comments about support for the arts and artists themselves are close to our hearts, we wouldn’t do the work we do if this wasn’t the case. We realise our challenge for the larger systems (societal culture, funding and available resources) that allow or stop art from happening, has been understood as a critique of artists themselves. This was never our intention. Rather, we try to provide feedback on what we see as art lovers and workers with a bit of distance, to ‘zoom out’ and capture a broader view of a place that illustrates we’re here to support larger change.
We’re including a generous response below with permission from the author that was emailed to us directly. We’re grateful to the author for getting in touch, and hope this provocation can lead to more support, problem-solving and collaboration in the future.
Dear Short Supply,
I am writing in response to your recently published blog post ‘Lancashire Lollygag - Goin Places Doin Bits’. As an artist who lives and works in Preston and a member of the Birley Studios it was really disappointing to read your ill-informed and factually inaccurate critique of the space and the artists working here in Preston (yes there are many of us!). It was especially disheartening coming from what we thought was an organisation actively seeking to engage with artists and institutions in the North West.
There are numerous things wrong with the post which should be removed/edited to reflect things as they are, instead of providing a disclaimer to your readers at the top of the blog which in effect states that some things here are inaccurate but we are going to publish it anyway, regardless of the damage it causes.
You start by comparing the Birley with PR1 Gallery at UCLan which is inappropriate given that PR1 is run by a staff member who is paid a salary to book in shows from across the university, involving the whole art and design school. It has paid technicians who help install the exhibitions; paint, materials and tools are provided; members of staff oversee and often hang the exhibitions alongside students and many staff members and other student can attend openings since they are already in the building studying. The Birley is an entirely different entity, run by unpaid artists, lacking in funding and doing everything (as described above) off their own back and with the aim of improving opportunities to engage with contemporary art and exhibit and importantly provide adequate space for artists at a low cost. This last point regarding affordable space is not something to play down since it is what enables so many of us to be able to continue with the work we make.
Despite the above challenges, the Birley has developed so much since it was established as studios in 2014, and particularly since 2018 when the upstairs was negotiated and constructed and later the Gallery was re-fitted. Since then, the Birley has put on a number of exhibitions, events and residencies. One of the most recent artists, Emma Gregory, spent a week discussing her work with student groups from UCLan, interested public, Birley artists and invited guests and curators from further afield. A review of this exhibition was actually published in Corridor 8 in January (https://corridor8.co.uk/article/emma-gregory-dynamics-of-care/ ). There are various articles I could name that have highlighted the work being produced by the artists here and facilitated by the hard-working Directors of the Birley – they are not ‘ethereal’ (?), they run the space as artists not CEO’s of a company and yes, like many working class artists, they juggle jobs to keep their practice going. Are you really criticising artists for having another job? Have you read the recent Guardian article and A.N report on artists being paid far below minimum wage?: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2023/mar/12/artists-in-uk-public-sector-making-far-below-minimum-wage-survey-finds
On that note, there has also been a change of directorship over the past two years, not to mention covid, and therefore some transitioning happening between this, the space and new artists who are settling in. It takes time, but to respond to the insulting point ‘Whatever long term plans The Birley has, they’re being kept close to the chest. That, or it doesn’t have any’ – let me direct you to the Birley Space Hive page, which provides a very clear vision of what we have planned: https://www.spacehive.com/the-birley---bringing-new-art-to-preston. We already have many backers (some unlisted as of yet) and there are many conversations taking place concerning the future curation/gallery programme and connections between the Birley and other cultural institutions within Lancashire and beyond.
Regarding your points about the building being like a house rather than a place of creativity, makes me question whether you walked around the studios. There is currently a gallery, a library space and studios downstairs/upstairs and all look and feel very different. Believe me when I say that there is no shortage of creativity: we have artists at all stages of their career and working in so many different ways. Our upstairs project space (which is being removed by the council) has been an amazing resource. It’s used to teach life classes, run workshops, to visualise projects and for me, especially significant as a space for making since I’m currently working with an artist from Manchester to develop a large-scale commission for BTB23 – this space for us have been a lifeline.
As for your final points regarding how money would change the Birley: are you really suggesting that by having the resources to actually pay someone to run a gallery programme, to organise and install exhibitions and promote the space/seek out new people and organisations to work with, wouldn’t alter what the Birley is able to provide? Surely you can see that by paying people properly to undertake specific roles, would enable them to give up some of the other work which you were so eager to criticise earlier in your blog post.
As I write this there are a group of MA students who have an opening this Friday evening at the Birley. They have been fully supported, offered help with the space from the directors who have sourced monitors, helped install, met with them various time to discuss health and safety, risk assessments, floor plans etc and are providing refreshments for the opening. These students follow you on Instagram and have been let down by such throwaway comments. It’s now clear that the emerging artists that you speak of helping are the very people you have overlooked.
To be clear, this is my personal response to your blog post and not an official comment by the Birley as a collective group.