BY Cathy Wade in Opinion | 25 OCT 23

What’s Next for Birmingham’s Cultural Institutions and Galleries?

Two gallery directors discuss the future of Britain’s second most populous city as the Council issues a Section 114, effectively declaring bankruptcy

BY Cathy Wade in Opinion | 25 OCT 23

In September 2023, Birmingham City Council issued a Section 114 (s.114) notice prohibiting new expenditure beyond the continuation of statutory services. The notice was in effect a declaration of bankruptcy by the council of Britain’s second most populous city. The roots of the crisis partially lie in a historic equal pay dispute, finally settled in 2012 at the UK Supreme Court, which found that the council had wrongly underpaid thousands of female former employees over many years. The council has since paid almost GB£1.1bn in claims and faces a further bill of up to GB£760m, that grows by up to GB£14m per month. In October, the central government in Westminster announced the appointment of special commissioners to oversee the running of the city. 

Here, artist and educator Cathy Wade meets with two museum and gallery directors to discuss the impact of the s.114 notice on the future of the city’s cultural life: Sara Wajid, co-director of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, the region’s largest public collection, which has been closed since 2020 for essential maintenance work, and Cheryl Jones, director and one of the founding members of Grand Union, an arts organisation in Digbeth. 

Grand Union
‘The Growing Project’, 2019–ongoing, Harvest Picnic Celebration, Grand Union, September 2023. Courtesy: Grand Union; photograph: Nina Baillie

Cathy Wade What was your immediate reaction to Birmingham City Council issuing a s.114? 

Sara Wajid We first heard of it when we read it in the papers, so we had no forewarning. We quickly started to get concerns from patrons and the public. ‘Is the museum going to be sold off? Are our jobs safe? What kind of city are we turning into?’ 

The public conversation about the impact of s.114, and the actual impact, and the gap between those two things led to a kind of cognitive dissonance.  

CW And Cheryl, Grand Union is in Digbeth, a rapidly redeveloping former industrial area just outside the city centre. What is happening for you?

Cheryl Jones As an independent organization, the city council does not regularly fund us, so it’s a slightly different situation. But our thoughts turned to many of the people we work with, some of whom are quite vulnerable. There’s a worry about public spending and what that means for people who are in difficult living situations and rely on many council-funded services.

A lot of the press that day felt really sensationalist, suggesting that key public buildings like the library and the museum would be sold off. I can see through that sensationalism, but the ripple effect of that kind of rhetoric can be quite damaging for broader culture, at a time when we’re all trying to prove its value.

‘This situation offers a clarion call to people working in art in the city to come together.’

CW How do you reflect on the difference between this year and last?

SW People had tears in their eyes when they returned to the museum during its brief reopening in 2022. Contrary to what it must look like to the outside world, the city is economically on the up, bouncing back much better than many other cities. However, we have the lowest investment per head for any museum in the country’s core cities. So, we are doing what we can with what little there is; we are punching above our weight as a city and as an institution.

I think this situation offers a clarion call to people working in art in the city to come together much more closely to deliver for the people of Birmingham, because we cannot afford not to have a robust cultural infrastructure. It’s the city’s lifeblood.

CW Cheryl, what have the arts and culture meant for Grand Union?

CJ I want to build on the idea of collaboration. Crisis can bring opportunity, can’t it? At Grand Union, we’ve been actively collaborating outside of the cultural sector too. We’ve co-created regular artist residencies and commissioning opportunities with businesses in the city centre. We’ve been working with the third sector through ‘The Growing Project’ [2019–ongoing], with organizations such as Spring Housing Association, co-designing, sustaining and enjoying green spaces with people going through difficult times. The project uses art and culture as a tool to bring people together to combat isolation and create better social cohesion. 

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
Visitors to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery during the 2022 temporary reopening. Courtesy: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery 

CW It feels like culture and the arts could be demoted to a luxury. If you put that in the context of the education and development of young people within the city, where do they access the stories of the place that they’re in? Do the citizens of Birmingham have a right to culture in the present?

SW In the museum business, we are trained to take a long view. We’re considering preserving memory, identity and collections for future generations. I believe I’m the first and only Pakistani museum director in this country, and I would not be that had I not been taken to museums and art galleries as a small child by my mother. For the last three years, the young people of Birmingham have had no major civic art gallery to be inspired by, so we already know its damaging impact. 

CJ The city’s museum is essential to our cultural infrastructure, and many people miss it. Despite that, people make their own art and culture every single day. It is happening whether the institutions are there or not. I’m very supportive of it, of course. However, we need to value these different things that are happening across the city, created by different people, particularly young people. 

I was thinking about urban gentrification and how artists and artist-led galleries are often seen as complicit in that process. There’s an opportunity here to tell a different story. We are trying to get under the skin of how cities operate, how councils operate, and the impacts on us as city residents. How can we be much more active, building relationships and connections to influence and help demonstrate more equitable ways of working to benefit a wider range of residents?

‘Don’t wait around to be given permission. That’s a significant message to take forward.’ 

CW These questions of autonomy are important because it feels like Birmingham's infrastructure has shifted toward the HS2 project. [The construction of the UK’s second high-speed rail line, connecting the city to London.] Is the city of the future one of rail terminals and shopping centres, or is it a city where you can take someone visiting and engage them with culture? 

CJ In Digbeth, there’s a good example of collaborative action: Digbeth Access Group was put together in response to the HS2 works cutting a range of organizations and businesses off from the city. The group, which includes the council, has worked collaboratively, using the creative skills of members like Grand Union and Intervention Architecture, to design a lighting wayfinding scheme for pedestrians from the city centre down to Digbeth. This community-led approach to designing useful, dynamic public infrastructure is so exciting – coming together to creatively solve a shared problem that addresses access and safety. I would love to see that method replicated in different contexts and communities across the city.

CW Yes, don’t wait around to be given permission. That’s a significant message to take forward. 

SW Arts organizations often frame themselves in terms of impact on the relatively soft outcomes around wellness and mental health for the civic good. However, creative industries are the biggest and fastest-growing part of our economy, and poverty is the main obstacle to public health.

Within our sphere, the idea that there’s just this much financial pie, and it’s finite, is damaging. We are not lesser people in this city. We are not less talented. We do not have less art and less vision, or fewer aspirations for our children and the future of our city. There is abundance, and there is cultural abundance.

In the museum service we think, okay, there’s 800,000 objects there. They belong to everybody, but traditionally museums have super-served the highly educated and over-served a narrow section of society. And that’s not what they were designed for. They were designed for the exact opposite. We need to flip the paradigm and spend time re-conceiving how people can get real access to their cultural assets, which belong to them, and to the objects and expertise that go along with it; how they can get their knowledge and their stories infused into these institutions and make them purposeful and valuable for them in a much more equitable way.    

Ed Webb-Ingall
Ed Webb-Ingall, ‘A Bedroom for Everyone’, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: Grand Union: photograph: Patrick Dandy

CJ While investment is of course vital, sometimes economic limitations can solicit creative solutions. Many organizations here come from a real DIY approach. At this time, we need to apply our creative skills and connections to different communities, and help the council think about its assets (that aren’t monetary) and how together we can make the best use of them for the benefit of the citizens of the city.

CW Cheryl, Sara, thank you ever so much. I look forward to seeing how your work enables the city to thrive beyond the impact of s.114.

Ed Webb-Ingall’s ‘A Bedroom for Everyone’ is at Grand Union, Birmingham, until December 1. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery remains closed, with plans to reopen in 2024 or 25. 

Main image and courtesy: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, 2023

Cathy Wade is an artist and writer based in Birmingham, UK.