Three translucent curtains hung framed, in the black panels of Convenience Gallery’s modular space. Beyond them spotlights coloured blue and green revealed the winding silhouette of an artwork set to face the back of the room. It was flat – not taking up much space – and it allowed visitors different vantage points. The sculpture-painting itself was aesthetically anatomical; spread out like circulatory vessels rolled flat under a transparent sheet. It stretched across three panels and caught itself at either side of its boundaries. Under the spotlights a variety of details came into view; two shelves jutted out on the left and centre panels, teeth and their nerve beds picked out in polymer clay, peculiar tools reminiscent of the board game ‘Operation’ lay embedded in the MDF, and patterns leaked across the flatter parts of the scene, like a cells under a microscope airbrushed in acrylic blood. My impression was of something ovular, alive or coming into life – moving yet frozen – a dragon of wood-bone, spotty with barnacles of shining paint. Roxy Topia and Paddy Gould’s exhibition ‘Discombobuloscopy’ was like a relief taken out of some fantastical, medical handbook. The exhibition closed back in early February but it is just one of many public exhibitions in Convenience Gallery’s year-long ‘In Cahoots’ programme that began in July last year to support artists and communities in Merseyside who had suffered during the pandemic.
Convenience Gallery is in Birkenhead’s Bloom Building, a multi-functional, community-oriented space run by mental health charity Open Door. It features a café-bar, a creative workspace complete with meeting rooms and solo work sheds, and a live venue that hosts a variety of events such as film screenings, life drawing sessions and exhibitions organised by Convenience Gallery. Any profits made through its various activities are directed back to Open Door and anyone has the opportunity to make use of its facilities. It’s a comfortable place that aims to bring conceptual art outside of its usual context and place it within community spaces. The founders, Andy Shaw and Ryan Gauge, came together in 2019 as an arts collective based at Birkenhead Market, aiming ‘to create a space to champion local art and develop a growing creative programme.’ After struggling to find opportunities to exercise their artistic practices, what followed was something that offered everyone the opportunity to shape something into being. A programme of activities grew according to the opinions and desires of the local community, offering exhibitions and workshops and talks, and after a partnership with Open Door in January 2020 – funding. The partnered, financial support facilitated practice development grants for more than sixty creative freelancers across the Liverpool City Region over the course of three years, including those distributed in collaboration with Merseyside Arts Fund in early 2021.
Convenience Gallery is one of the few creative collectives spearheading the movement of community-focused arts practice and artist development. Something very radical and often taken for granted is just how rare it is for artists to be offered total control of the production and display of their works. The gallery and the community-focused collectives it gives rise to are an anchor of support offering a space for local people to talk and realise arts projects together. Every artwork and event is self-determined by its creator in conversation with the people involved within it.
The capacity of alternative public space to transform how we think about art is valued here. Alongside ‘In Cahoots’, Convenience Gallery have a functional display system available for artists to use. It’s a modular framework that can be fitted with up to eight panels; easily deconstructed and rebuilt. The structure has pushed all the exhibiting artists to reconsider their practice in relation to ideas of function and the day-to-day utility of the café-bar and gallery. Some have make a traceable lightbox, or a digitally immersive environment, and a colourful privacy screen has also been introduced to the space. As part of their solo exhibition in February, Roxy Topia and Paddy Gould felt the framework provided an opportunity to experiment in non-traditional display space: the background of the busy café-bar. Their aim was to function as a part of the space instead of conducting separate activities within it.
Exhibitions in alternative spaces facilitate interactivity and an engaged experience for both audiences and artists. Visitors are able to encounter works in a more relaxed way, unlike in more traditional gallery spaces. Here they can trace a drawing from the walls, or physically enter an artwork and artists have the option to respond to this and inhabit the space accordingly. Andy and Ryan have noticed this interplay: ‘What I think we’ve seen with it – which was a surprise – was that with each exhibit the next artist seemed spurred on by the exhibit before; how they could use the frames in new ways and embed them into their piece in even more exciting and innovative ways?’ Instead of a series of individual projects, what is being created through the ‘In Cahoots’ programme is an example of community that’s continually responding to and building itself in relation to the programme as a whole.
‘Often, for the longevity of any artist-led projects, things can be determined by very finite questions. Will we be able to get funding? Will we continue to have the support and access to spaces? Can we continue to deliver support?’ explain Andy and Ryan. For them, like many other artist studios and project spaces, these questions mean the difference between survival and closure. ‘We want to continue the opportunity for our community and for artists to be able to thrive and continue to grow what we are able to offer.’ What they say is correct and a common concern for many artist projects, not-for-profit organisations and community interest companies across Merseyside.
In the current climate, a community-oriented approach seems to mean an automatic sacrifice financially. Many places have to struggle and battle just to stay open. ‘Locally we would love to see more collaboration between the big institutions and smaller spaces,’ Andy and Ryan tell me; developing the cultural offerings of the city and nurturing new talent is clearly really important to them. ‘We want to see spaces of all levels and sectors working together for the benefit of the community and we see creativity and access to arts and creative careers as being super important to this.’
Easier and greater accessibility to creative opportunities is essential in the process of growing a wider and more mutually beneficial arts community in the Merseyside region. Cross-platform programming between institutions and collectives has the potential to make a space in which the community as a whole can begin to have their say on what they would like to see from their towns, their cities, their areas. As Andy and Ryan say, more access to contemporary arts in town locations helps democratise the arts, enabling our peers and contemporaries to thrive without leaving the city. But this needs adequate funding at all levels. ‘Equal opportunities for everyone regardless of experience,’ Andy and Ryan say. ‘We like to put our faith and time into good ideas and good people.’
This summer Andy and Ryan plan to continue their work in public spaces with a takeover of Birkenhead Park, and there are more ideas for new projects brewing all the time. ‘We are constantly in a state of rethinking and reworking how we can get more audiences engaged with our projects and how we can support people to engage with our work.’ Currently, they are thinking about accessible language and foregrounding participation as a key focus of any new project. Over the next three years Convenience Gallery aims to be a central node in the community of Birkenhead, developing a community-focused arts collective for residents and artists alike. After their participation in Convenience Gallery’s ‘In Cahoots’ programme, I asked Paddy and Roxy what they would like to see from the region’s art in the future: ‘Support for difference in approach on its own terms is what matters; intellectual, critical, financial and friendly support; as varied as the people we are.’ Enabled by its funding partnership, Convenience Gallery is currently able to provide this. They are a non-normative example of what it is to facilitate people to express themselves through their art, regardless of experience or background.
Reece Griffiths is an artist and writer in Liverpool.
The ‘In Cahoots’ programme continues until May 31st 2022 at Convenience Gallery.
This article is sponsored by Arts Council England.