by Megan Daly
“What is the role of cultural organizations? Is it enough to hang some pretty art on the wall, or do we have a social responsibility within our community?”
Where creativity and community flourish, The Gap is a volunteer-run cultural space dedicated to young artists and local residents in Balsall Heath, an inner-city area of Birmingham.
Starting out as a youth-led theatre company in 2009, this now established venue, gallery and community café is usually thriving with activity day-to-day.
We caught up with Exhibitions Programmer Ella Marshall and Creative Producer Arron Gill to discuss how they’ve adapted their programme during the pandemic, and their thoughts on the social responsibility of cultural organisations during times of crisis.
What role do you think creativity plays at times of crisis?
Ella: Imagination allows us to escape from the restraints of the reality immediately around us. Thinking creatively outside of art and culture is especially important now, because people are having to find resourceful ways of adapting to their situation in order to survive and remain resilient.
Arron: Creativity is critical as a practice of liberation. By focusing on transformative creative practices within local communities, we can reimagine how we interact with each other and make it real. That’s why drama is one of the most useful creative tools, because it's a social act that takes imagination and creativity very seriously.
What are the aims of the cultural and creative work you do at The Gap?
Arron: Our aims are rooted in education and drama, stemming from the work of the dramatist Edward Bond and his concept of ‘the gap’. Generally, when people think about ‘the gap’ in a social context, they think about ‘closing’ the gap. Closing the gender pay gap, for example. Instead, we want to ‘open’ the gap; create a space for young people and communities to step into, free from the ideologies and demands of society, to engage critically, creatively, and culturally.
It’s important to locate our work in the civic context of Birmingham. Birmingham is the youngest city in Europe, with 40% of the population aged 25 or under. The council is one of the largest in Europe, and billions of pounds in debt. Put those factors together under a Tory government and you see a decimation of services to young people. We don’t want to be an organization that is only about the value of the arts; we see the arts as instrumental in understanding how society works, and try to respond to the needs of our community which the state fails to meet.
Balsall Heath is an extremely working-class area with a high percentage of transient migration. It saw the Irish in the 60s; Pakistanis in the 70s; and more recently Somalians and Eastern Europeans. We are always rooted in the local but are about the global. We collaborate with international partners in China, Hungary and elsewhere. We want to build international solidarity and shared practices, but in a way that is extremely applicable to the families who live down the road.
How have you adapted your programming and resources to support the community of Balsall Heath during the pandemic?
Ella: This year our programme is called 2020 VISION, creating a culture of theatre and storytelling in Balsall Heath. Though we have digitised parts of the programme, we’re reluctant to focus on digital projects because The Gap is so much about face-to-face encounters and local people passing by on the street. Not everyone has access to digital resources, so it's not a solution to reach the communities who really need our support.
Some of the programme we’ve been able to adapt, like Community Stories Research. We are gathering oral histories from local residents about their lives, forming a collection which will be used as inspiration for a group of young writers on a development programme with us. As people are more isolated and so worried about the future right now, they have enjoyed reflecting on where they’ve come from.
Our colleagues Ceri and Hassan also run a programme called Food Chain, a six-week course teaching young asylum seekers how to cook. As it was during Ramadan people couldn’t come together to break fast, so we organised a team of volunteers to make Iftar deliveries.
Arron: There is an assumption that digital is the only option, but we can be much more creative about how we adapt to fit new regulations. We work with a lovely lady who lives up the road and owns a private garden. Our plan is to eventually turn the garden into an outdoor theatre space, for small groups of people to do socially distanced activities.
We live in an area where people don't really have access to open green spaces, so at the start of lockdown, we repurposed some funds to run the Family Garden Day Out. These were days for individual, local families to use the private garden for free. We worked with Balsall Heath CATS (Children Action Teens Support) who support residents with children or family members with additional needs. We mowed the lawn, put in a portaloo, brought in play equipment, and cooked to provide food for the afternoon. It was a small way of providing some sort of safe sanctuary for people. When I was speaking with some of the families, particularly mothers, who are 24-hour carers to their children without access to their palliative nurses or specialised play dates during lockdown, a space like this was so needed for them.
Arron: We were a little bit shocked by the amount of wider public interest these deliveries received. It’s not unusual work for us to do, but because it happened during a time when people were trying to support charitable activities, we received a lot of donations. The trick is, how do we keep support for this activity up in a much more coordinated way? It raises the question, what is the role of cultural organisations? Is it enough to hang some pretty art on the wall and say, ‘this is for you because we're based on your road’, or do we have a social responsibility within our community?
How have you been supporting artists across Birmingham?
Arron: When we applied for the Arts Council Emergency Funding, we wanted to use it to financially support local artists and creatives in the city. Trying to figure out a method which isn't labour intensive, we got the idea for 100 Stories Deep. It’s easy: we pay local artists to read aloud a short story of their choice, which we upload to our YouTube channel.
Ella: Another participatory online project we are running is Self, Isolated. We commissioned five local young artists to create a self-portrait which reflected their experience of lockdown. When we re-open, we will host a physical exhibition at The Gap with all the works together, which will shine a light on our shared experiences within different circumstances during this strange time.
The GAP's Self, Isolated exhibition runs until October 3. Find out more about how you can (safely) attend
Megan Daly is a Birmingham-based artist and teacher. She is also the Visual Director of the Radical Art Review. Follow her