Can the Return of Birmingham’s Eastside Projects Survive the Gentrification of the City’s Art Scene?

After a year’s hiatus, Birmingham’s best-known art space is back to celebrate its 10th anniversary, but its long-term future in Digbeth is unclear

On 6 June 2017 Eastside Projects quietly closed its doors. They would remain closed for almost a full year, until the much-anticipated reopening at the start of June. The not-for-profit gallery has been at the heart of Birmingham’s contemporary art scene for almost ten years, setting up shop just outside the city centre in Digbeth, an area that has developed into one of the UK’s most exciting places for contemporary art. 

Within this tiny geographical enclave, gallery-goers can also visit not-for-profit art spaces Grand Union, Centrala, Vivid Projects, Stryx, and more. While artists make use of production facilities at the recently opened STEAMhouse, developed by Eastside Projects’ Associate Director and artist Ruth Claxton, or ceramics studio Modern Clay, run by local artist Mark Essen. All of this makes Digbeth fairly unique within the UK, where the challenge of finding affordable and suitable space for artists and galleries often creates geographical dispersal, moving them to the furthest edges of the city, and far from one another.

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mixrice, ‘Migrating Flavours’, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: Eastside Projects, Birmingham

Eastside Projects has been a leading force within this scene. Its exhibitions programme, which over the years has featured Sonia Boyce, Hardeep Pandhal, Lawrence Weiner, Tacita Dean and many more, has consistently brought attention to the area. And initiatives such as Extra Special People, a membership scheme offering artists professional development and other opportunities, and the aforementioned STEAMhouse have given artists practical help and training. So its sudden closure was a worrying sign, particularly with no information forthcoming as to why it happened. 

According to founder and Director Gavin Wade, this silence was due to the organization’s own lack of clear information on its status. An inspection from the leaseholder, Birmingham City University, revealed structural and electrical issues that were significant enough to require immediate closure (although Wade stresses that the building was not necessarily in a dangerous condition). So as it entered its tenth year, the Eastside Project’s future was thrown completely into doubt; estimates for renovations were coming to such significant sums that relocation was seriously considered. Thankfully, however, Birmingham City University eventually agreed to fund the GBP£250,000 renovation of the existing Digbeth site.

Now successfully reopened, with its immediate future secure, as an Arts Council England National Portfolio organization in partnership with Birmingham City University, Eastside Projects finds itself refreshed and in a new position of strength. Amongst various practical developments, one of the most notable is Another Reality (2018), Celine Condorelli’s curtain, which functions as an architectural intervention, creating what Wade refers to as the gallery’s ‘also-space’, where others are invited in, either to simply sit down and drink a cup of tea or for more formal events such as a-n’s recent Assembly Birmingham, which gathered artists and arts professionals for a day of discussions around the present state and potential future of Birmingham and the wider Midlands art scene. Importantly, this space is now located at the entrance to the building, whereas the previous equivalent, Heather and Ivan Morison’s Black Pleasure (2012) sat towards the rear of the space, providing a less inviting presence. 

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‘The Endless Village’, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: Eastside Projects, Birmingham

Condorelli’s curtain is a reminder that Eastside Projects have, wherever possible, always invited artists to make interventions such as these, from the literal Soap Dish (2018) designed and made by local artist Emilie Atkinson, to refreshed lighting from Wade himself, an update of his initial 2008 piece, now titled Reconfigured Functional Configuration (LFR FWB ECP) (2018). Long standing pieces also remain, such as Matthew Harrison’s Willkommen. Bienvenue. Welcome. C’mon in. (2008), the handle to the front door, made up of a multitude of international woods, or Martino Gamper’s Untitled (2010), a modular shelving system which has seen various configurations since its installation, functioning as the gallery’s book shop display. Such is the extent to which artists have shaped the space that even during our interview Wade remembers examples that have been mistakenly missed from the list provided to visitors. It’s a simple but effective approach, that if an artist can do it, then they should, and it’s highly indicative of Eastside Projects’ approach to running a gallery, that artists’ and their needs will always be at the heart of what they do.

The opening exhibitions show a pleasing mixture of the international and the local, with Korean collective Mixrice in the main gallery with their exhibition ‘Migrating Flavours’, and local collective General Public in the second space. Mixrice’s work with migrant communities presents some poignant moments. One element of the surprisingly sprawling show, Mixfruit (2016–18), is the third iteration of a project that has previously involved working with communities in Korea and the Netherlands, now in Birmingham working with Kushinga Community Gardens and the Birch Network. As part of the wider project, participants are invited to remember fruits from their home countries, often unavailable in the UK, and remake them in clay, bringing up personal narratives around migration and developed by the artists into a moving display. 

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Eastiside Projects, Birmingham. Courtesy: Eastiside Projects, Birmingham

General Public’s film The Endless Village (2018) casts a satirical eye towards the UK’s post-Brexit future, with their version of it portraying a country further divided and apparently regressed into a wild, agrarian society. Throughout, the protagonist searches for a banana, finding difficulty and opposition along the way, such as the crossbow-wielding guards at the community allotments who echo The League of Gentlemen with their outburst of ‘local fruit for local people’.

With this strong opening offering of exhibitions, the gallery itself in better condition than ever, and the approaching celebration of the tenth anniversary, things seem positive. Nearby, the not-for-profit Grand Union has recently announced plans to expand into a new building, for which it are now in the process of fundraising; it recently joined Arts Council England’s National Portfolio alongside its neighbours Centrala, which paints a positive picture of Birmingham’s art scene overall. However Digbeth is set for serious change with the development surrounding HS2’s arrival, causing rent and property values to increase. Like many organizations, Eastside Projects has the long-term goal of owning its own space, but Digbeth is already far too expensive for this, so the readjusted aim is to leave the current site after another 4-5 years, and most likely move further away from the city centre. This seems to herald the dispersal of Birmingham’s art scene, leaving the long-term future uncertain, reminding us to enjoy Digbeth while it lasts.

Main image: mixrice, ‘Migrating Flavours’, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: Eastside Projects, Birmingham

Tom Emery is a curator and writer based in Manchester.

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