Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Organisational development : Visit to Backlit, Nottingham

As part of AirSpace Gallery's period of programme and organisational reflection, research and development, ahead of our intended programme of works 2019-2021, we embarked on a series of research visits to relevant organisations across the country.

In late 2018, I visited Backlit in Nottingham and spoke with Directors Matthew Chesney and Suzanne Golden. Backlit was of particular interest, set up in a very similar way to AirSpace at a similar time, in a city not dissimilar to Stoke, but with marked differences in the city's arts and cultural infrastructure.

Some notes from the visit :

An artist-led gallery and studio space based in Nottingham, hosting an annual programme of events and exhibitions

SUZANNE GOLDEN - Deputy Director
HEATHER PERKINS - Marketing Coordinator
GINA MOLLETT - Learning and Community Coordinator
ALICE JACKSON - Catalyst Project Coordinator
JOEY HOLDER - Office Manager and Studio Coordinator
CARYS BOWEN-JONES - Volunteer Coordinator
PETER CHESNEY - Technical Assistant

Background and Ways of Working

Central to the BACKLIT ethos is its strong working relationships with regional universities and its partnerships with other galleries and creative organisations. It is also committed to supporting projects that promote community and local heritage.

Set up in 2008 by NTU Fine Art graduates, one of whom was current director, Matthew Chesney, with 2 board members remaining from the original instigators. Originally housed in a derelict building, they moved to their present location - a large two storey building just outside the centre of Nottingham in 2012. The present building is home to 45 resident studio artists on the first floor with Gallery space on the second floor.

It was clear from talking with Suzanne Golden - Deputy Director - that the organisation is directly linked to its studio - who form, and are acknowledged as, a core part of their audience.

Studio artists are a mix of mainly new arts graduates / emerging artists from the Universities, and artists relocating back to or to Nottingham, attracted by the city’s affordability and the affordability of the studio spaces.

Studio spaces are also hired by specific arts groups and independent businesses.

Backlit’s 3 major exhibitions per year, always include activity by studio artists - offering professional development for the studio - a core ethic of the organisation. This might be, for example, a new commission - working alongside a more established artist. But a crucial way of aligning the studio ethic with the Gallery ethic.

Studio artist benefits are stated as:

    24 hour access
    Internet, heating and electricity (unless excessive usage)
    Profile on the website
    Access to any member only opportunities including exhibitions and events
    Priority over non-members to workshops, talks and other critical sessions
    Being part of a diverse and exciting studio community
    Opportunities to apply to BACKLIT Artist events including projects, annual group show and participation programmes
    Access to regular development opportunities
    Access to regular workshops
    Access to one-to-ones with relevant members of staff in person or via Skype

Backlit’s studio provision is augmented by an Associate scheme which for a small monthly fee offers

    Expanding your network with access to like-minded people in the Nottingham arts scene
    Acknowledgment on BACKIT’s website with a link to your own page
    Opportunity to apply to BACKLIT’s annual group show
    Opportunities to show work at BACKLIT’s makers fair, Open Studios and within the building year-round
    Priority access to BACKLIT events and private views
    Invitations to quarterly BACKLIT Studio meetings
    Regular communications that share Associate and Studio artists’ work, practice and projects
    Access to BACKLIT’s Dark Room and Screen Printing studio
    Discount rates to hire out our project space
    Priority notification of short term studio rental
    Direct contact with BACKLIT staff

2 main audiences were identified - the artists they work with (including studio) and their local community and associated community groups. A recent Arts Council grant allowed Backlit to reassess how they can work with those two specific sets of audience. This process has let to a more defined way of working - building relationships with specific community groups - eg Refugee Forum, the Women’s Muslim Community Group, Community Recording Studio and the Renewal Trust. Building those links allows for an embedded sense of operations within the organisation’s community.

To enhance their embedded sense of activity, there is a commitment to being present at as many community events as possible to build the community network and level of trust and engagement - done largely by Gina Mollett - Learning and Community Co-ordinator.

Their involvement in the Tate Exchange programme as helped learning about how to best engage. How to evaluate relationships and connect properly, and work most effectively in a socially engaged way. How to best work in this way - how to collect evidence, how to log information, observational tracking - eg overheard conversations as case study, storytelling,
Key learning included
- that evaluation should start at Day 1 of a project and shouldn’t be done at the end - it’s an ongoing process allowing for continual reflection, assessment and change.

To aid understanding of their organisation to new audiences, projects have included work around the building they’re inhabiting - its history and how it has and does relate to the community. Work was done, within the project to find personal attached relationships and shared experiences of the building - rooting the local community in the past, present and future of the building.

From this, there was a development of a group of community ambassadors - The Morley Union - who could advocate for the organisation, champion its actions, within the area’s activities.

An important element of the organisation is their volunteer support - from the Backlit website:

Any volunteer at BACKLIT will benefit from networking and industry experience, but each role has specific skills development to ensure the perfect match!

Volunteers at BACKLIT can get structured support as well as having an increased number of opportunities available. So far the volunteers have experienced several benefits from joining the programme, some of which include:

    Networking with local & national Artists
    Developing: Curation, Communication, Creativity, Cohesion
    Mentoring & Friendship
    Confidence & Public Speaking
    Relevant Industry Experience
    Work Experience & Employment References
    Community Involvement
    Free attendance to Events & Exhibitions

Volunteer activity is formalised, largely through a symbiotic link with the Universities - who benefit from the relationship - and understand and value the relationship - as it allows them to offer a work placement element within their courses. There is also a partnership with the Job Centre to offer volunteer placements for non- students - increasing the reach of the organisation. Also worked with NCVS - Nottingham Community Voluntary Services.

Volunteer activity largely consists of Gallery Assisting and Invigilating, but also extends to help with building renovation. The organisation has a specific role attached - Carys Bowen-Jones co-ordinates the activity. Voluntary activity is unpaid - but at the end of each exhibition, for instance - the volunteer group is offered the Project Space, free of charge, to respond to the exhibition in any way they feel.

The organisation benefits from good support from the Local Council, and specific individual councillor/council officer advocacy -

and also through a supportive relationship with the City’s main gallery-based arts organisation - Nottingham Contemporary and the other arts organisations in the City - such as Primary. The Backlit programme activity often includes complementary activity happening at NC - but interestingly, NC understand that there are mutual benefits, particularly in terms of audience development for both organisations.

There is an acknowledged understanding of a sense of a contemporary arts infrastructure in Nottingham which helps, in a fraternal and supportive way, the individual organisations to prosper.

However, as Director Matthew Chesney mentioned partner and sector support from, in particular, the Universities could always be better - a conversation is still to be had, and an argument to be won, about the bi-directional benefit of artist-led organisations - in terms of helping with Graduate retention in the city, their role as part of the cultural infrastructure and offering possibilities for new arts graduates to build a career in the arts.

An interesting development in the Nottingham arts ecology, relevant for AirSpace, is the effect that the growth of Backlit and Primary, and their move toward NPO has had. There is a sense that new projects and organisations are continually cropping up - but interestingly, whereas previously they may have happened independently, new projects are happening within the walls of these 2 new NPO’s - Trade, 4x4(formerly HUTT) and Tom Goddard at Primary, and Chaos Magic from within Backlit. As building development in cities grows, and available building space and resources dwindle, the ability of existing arts organisations to house and nurture new activity becomes ever more important in order to keep the overall ecology fresh and developmental.


Backlit is currently set up as a charitable organisation and also a recent 1st time Arts Council NPO organisation. Application for NPO for an artist-led organisation is a daunting prospect, in terms of having the organisational structure in place, and the ability to cope with and thrive from its implicit demands - but the move for Backlit seemed an obvious one to make for the future prospects of their organisation - and also, they found that, in a right time right place sense, the move made sense. Ultimately, they believed they had nothing to lose by applying, and in terms of the potential organisational benefits, the move made sense.

However, there have been and continue to be challenges, especially for the artist-led - Suzanne talked of “spinning plates” - “ as an artist you need to be able to multi-task…you put yourself in this type of job and its HR, finance, curatorial, working with the volunteers… trying to prioritise and work out what needs to be done when…it’s often quite difficult.”

And for Matthew Chesney, the NPO experience so far has been fairly straightforward in terms of programming and in many ways easier than during the days of project-to-project funding. The difficulties have been issues around Human Resources and getting systems of organisation and policies in place - “ we’re not HR trained, we’re not accountants - we’re artists who got into directing and curating, admin and fund-raising…”


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Jaker Harwell said...

Wonderful blog & good post abstract backlit art.It's really helpful for me, awaiting for more new post. Keep Blogging!

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