Since opening at Birkenhead Market in June, Convenience Gallery has been working to rub away the divide between the everyday and the artist. Julia Johnson meets its curators to learn more about their programme of exhibitions, tutorials and workshops.
Is it perhaps easy, especially in a city perceived to be as creative as Liverpool is, to take the flourishing of the arts scene for granted. But having a city filled with people driving to create work is only half the story: the conditions must also exist for these talents to mature. This is why spaces are crucial; places where artists can develop ideas by putting them into practice, and where they can find audiences receptive to their talents.
Enter CONVENIENCE GALLERY. Based in Birkenhead Market since June 2019, the project – led by artists Ryan Gauge and Andrew Shaw – is a space for artists to grow through practice and exhibition. Affiliated with the socially engaged Small Steps Events, Convenience developed as its own project from the desire to put art and artists in the spotlight as a main event in their own right. Acting as facilitators rather than selective curators, Convenience’s format is optimistic and trusting. They believe in the fundamental talent of individuals and its ability to blossom with the right community.
As artists, Ryan and Andy know that having confidence in the strength of your own work can sometimes be a challenge in itself. “One of the barriers with being an artist is that you just sit in your own head for hours,” explains Ryan. “The point with Convenience was to be able to get a load of artists to sit and to say, ‘What do you want to do? No barriers – what would be beneficial?’ And a lot of it was just people getting to have conversations about their work, because they don’t get to do that.”
From these conversations, several strands of programming and interaction have emerged. Exhibiting is one, of course: giving artists a space in which visitors can view their work. It’s another question which maybe isn’t addressed enough in public conversation: where are the spaces for artists to emerge for an audience? And the location and layout of Convenience make it a unique venue.
Located on both sides of an aisle in the centre of Birkenhead Market, their units open out directly into the path. There are no physical or psychological boundaries that an audience needs to cross in order to engage with what’s being shown. Ryan and Andy have understood the importance of tapping into the potential of this setup to spark curiosity since the first exhibition. “It was a lot of wall-based work, so it was immediately relatable, even if you were just walking through,” says Andy.
This has had a significant effect, not just on how people are accessing the work, but what happens in the subsequent interactions. Convenience’s approach, once again, is openness: they’re aware of their place as a point of connection between the arts scene and the everyday, and want to be as open to all as they can be. There’s plenty of space to sit and chat in their units, and many visitors do, including those who are less art conscious than your regular gallery frequenter. “The big question we get asked is, ‘What’s actually going on?’” says Andy. “People are excited about the ‘weirdness’ that we’re situated here. We find there’s a lot of people here getting a watch fixed, who say ‘I do art!’ and they get their phone out and start showing us all the work that they do.” It is in these moments the gallery reveals itself as not only a proving ground for young, new artists, but a bridge to those who’ve casually practised away from the four walls of local and national institutions. It subtly brings the two together thanks to its irregular home in a once bustling heart of Birkenhead commerce.
Importantly, these passing conversations are increasingly able to continue beyond a brief visit by attending the workshops Convenience facilitate. Our conversation returns time and again to the gallery’s programme, which is growing in collaboration with the artists they work with – indeed, at their request. Ryan says how, at those early meetings, “there was quite a lot of artists saying ‘I’d quite like to teach a class about what I’m doing’. It’s a chance to sit down for two hours with people, it’s more interactive than just viewing art”. “And it becomes a regular social thing,” adds Andy. “We do a lot of them that are more affordable, because we don’t want people to feel like they’re priced out of something.”
As well as evenings focusing on particular skills, Convenience are also collaborating with LJMU and Bloom Building to bring the Thinking Out Loud lecture series to Birkenhead. Open to anyone, the evenings are comprised of an accessible lecture, followed by an artist-led workshop inspired by the subject. As a way of introducing audiences to new creative concepts and activities, it’s an interactive and engaging format.
As for the question of ‘why Birkenhead?’, the answer is less about establishing space specifically for Wirral as it is about broadening opportunity in a way which happens to be geographical as well as philosophical. Convenience very clearly see themselves as part of the Merseyside arts scene. They were participants in October’s Studio Shuffle, when studios and groups – including Dorothy, Antisteel, Arena, Road and The Royal Standard – opened up in the Baltic Triangle to exhibit what their artists have been working on. Talk is already of one taking place in Birkenhead. They’ve also hosted an exhibition of work by this year’s LJMU graduates, BURST Our Bubble. But they’re again keen to point out that this isn’t just overflow from across the water – it’s an expanding of the conversation. “If you live over here and you’re an artist, you can’t always get into Liverpool. There’s always been the question of ‘how do you get people to come over?’ Well, there are people who live here as well! So you’ve gotta be for them, too.”
Until 21st December, Convenience are working with the international LOOK Photo Biennial to exhibit work by Hong Kong-born artist Dinu Li. The Anatomy Of Place takes over all three of their units and explores the ideologies and rituals that bind people and places together. Rather than this being a project forced into its venue, the exhibition was established through collaboration and a mutual feeling that the space was right for the work. Andy explains how this came about. “Dinu was really into the market. It’s a big part of the work, where he grew up was a big market place. So he liked the space, and so we started chatting to him about his work. I think we just had a really good conversation about it. It grew very quickly from one piece to this collection, spread across all of the units. All the work in this show has entwined narratives which he’d never been able to show all together, and he was really excited to be able to do that.”
A major international programme LOOK may be, but this story centres on the same qualities as have been found in every aspect of Convenience’s work: relationship with the community and support for the artist to realise their vision. It’s an ethos that spreads across collaborations with international artists such as Dinu, or those who stumble upon the space when looking for a watch repair. Ultimately, it’s a space that looks to mix institutionally taught art with experience of the real world, all blended together through exhibitions and wide array of tutorials and workshops.
Our changing shopping habits, and the need for the purpose of traditionally commercial spaces to change with them to survive, has seen projects akin to Convenience emerge up around the country. The example of Convenience shows how such spaces can become symbols of the kind of society we want to exist. The team describe their ideal as having a space with “no boundary between the viewer and the art or artist”. After just a few months they’re well on their way to making this an interactive reality.