Pete James and Nicola Shipley discuss how taking exhibitions into public spaces has allowed photography hub Grain to meet new audiences.

Image of Library of Birmingham
Grain’s home in the Library of Birmingham

Grain is the photography hub for the West Midlands, based in the Library of Birmingham. We work in collaboration with regional, national and international partners to create opportunities for photographers to build the infrastructure and profile for photography. Our activities include commissions, exhibitions, training, courses, symposia, research projects, publications and events, all aimed at strengthening and sustaining photography in the region, developing the artform and contributing to a thriving photography sector.

Although the hub is based in the library, we exhibit and present events outside the gallery in order to take the artform to the widest possible audience in a range of public spaces. A recent example of this is the work entitled The City of Six Towns which we commissioned in Stoke-on-Trent with Appetite. As part of its commitment to community engagement in Stoke, Appetite discussed our shortlist of photographers with its community hubs, many of whom had not interacted with photography as an artform before. With new work by acclaimed photographer Mark Power, the project was exhibited in the new Albion Square in the city centre. Having spent a good deal of time getting to know the landscape, people and dynamics of the city, Mark made a series of informed and insightful visual stories forming a unique response to the city and its residents.

As with all our work, we do not just wait and hope for people to discover it by chance

As with all our work, we do not just wait and hope for people to discover it by chance. Our proactive engagement with existing and new audiences is incredibly important. Our work has two audiences: those already interested as makers or consumers who often travel significant distances to see or take part in our activities; and then those who live locally to an exhibition and whose imaginations can be fired by engaging with something new. To increase engagement and understanding, we deliver complimentary activities such as artist talks and informal gatherings to meet the artist. We constantly promote our work through social media, online channels, local media and national press to ensure our projects are promoted to and seen by the widest and largest possible audience.

As with any of our projects, the evaluation process is crucial, not only from a funding perspective but also for the continued development of both the programme and artist. The process begins with collating initial feedback from stakeholders, project partners and neighbouring venues on how they feel the exhibition or event was received. As engagement targets will have been set in the early days, feedback from the general public is equally as important. Top-line statistics such as attendance and footfall to spaces form the base, but we also include sample comments and interviews as well as engagement on social media. Attendance at associated events such as artist talks are a good indicator on whether the work was well received and if there is a demand for similar events. Other factors such as press coverage, photo documentation and feedback from the commissioned artist are also taken into consideration.

To date, Grain has delivered a strong programme of events and exhibitions which have engaged with new and existing audiences on a number of levels. Our aim is to continue this programme and strengthen our work with national and international partners to develop the artform and the artists involved.

Pete James is Curator of Photographs at Library of Birmingham and Co-director of Grain. Nicola Shipley is Co-director of Grain.

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Image of Pete James
Image of Nicola Shipley