Sci&Tech Editor Georgia Brooks interviews city curator Alex Nicholson-Evans about 100 Days of Creativity and the challenges facing the culture sector

Written by Georgia Brooks

100 Days of Creativity is a cultural festival celebrating Birmingham’s artistic and creative scene this summer. Georgia Brooks interviews the organiser, city curator Alex Nicholson-Evans.

Could you tell me a bit about what it is that you do? How would you describe your job?

I’m definitely a woman who wears many hats. I am the city curator for Birmingham (a new role for the city), and I started in November. That’s just two days a week, and for the rest of the time I run a company called Living for the Weekend, which delivers festivals across the UK, predominantly in Birmingham, such as Birmingham Cocktail Weekend, Birmingham Restaurant Festival, etc. Basically, I built a company based on stuff I really like! And alongside that, I still do some consultancy – I used to be commercial director for the museums in the city and I do a lot of work around storytelling and place making through all the things I just described, so I keep some very occasional consultancy work when I see a project that really excites me. 

What was it that led you into this industry, and all of the things that you just described, such as creating your own company, and the commercial side of Birmingham’s art scene?

I’ve always been a big fan of food and drink. To go back to my roots, I grew up above a village shop that my mum had turned into a kind of French delicatessen with a lot of French wine. I grew up with foodies, and wine runs through my veins! Probably what led me to become city curator is a mixture of that festival running experience that I just described, and the fact that I spent nearly a decade working in the museum sector – about 8 years as commercial director for the Birmingham Museums Trust. That I suppose was my biggest introduction to the culture sector – I was based at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. 

The reason I’m really loving the city curator role and why I feel so equipped to do it is because I’ve got both of those skills sets – that knowledge of how the culture sector operates and experience and contacts within that space, but also this experience of being an entrepreneur; I can move a bit quicker and be more agile. It’s those two things brought together that allow me to operate best in this space. 

Relating to that combination of the business side and culture side, sometimes a communication that doesn’t always happen, why do you think that’s so important? How do you manage to achieve that? 

That was the biggest balancing act of my entire career! For a long time in the culture sector, public funding meant that museums and galleries didn’t have to do loads of work to make their café really profitable or make sure their shop was really flourishing. It’s been the case for a long time now that commercial income is needed for all of these institutions. I had to find this balance of ‘okay, we want to do free things like exhibitions and establish a depth of relationship with the communities that we serve.’ The balance is that if we don’t think about ticket pricing and merchandise in the shop, we never get to do that community engagement work. And I’ve very much found peace with that, but that’s not the case for everyone. So part of my role as commercial director was explaining that it’s not a bad thing to find that balance and to make money here so we can spend money there. So that has set me in good stead. 

Part of my role as commercial director was explaining that it’s not a bad thing to find that balance and to make money here so we can spend money there

Now I don’t find myself having to think so much in that space, but I’m looking, for example, at the feasibility of a light festival for Birmingham, and that’s a very significant investment. The skills and knowledge I have apply here. Say I want that festival to be free, because I want the economic impact to be for the businesses that would be in the area, and that kind of event doesn’t work as a charged event. The point is to put art on the streets and make it accessible to all. So the balance is always how do we make that sustainable, because it’s not a case of being able to go to funders year on year for the same thing. There has to be some element of that, but what does it look like to bring in corporate support? Do you have to download an app, do we create merchandise? I guess that’s still very much in my mind, but maybe not quite such an important focus as it was. 

So interesting, and something that I, as an art consumer, don’t think about that much. 

I bet when you go and see a show that you absolutely love, you don’t think much about paying a small ticket price because you understand the value of it.  Often people do value things more when they’ve had to pay for it. You see it in the events industry; when you give a free ticket, the dropout rates are problematic. When you put a charge on it, that drops significantly. I’m not saying there’s not a place for free events, there absolutely is and there will always be, but it is a shame that the data tells us that adding a charge can help people to understand that there is a value to what they’re going to see. 

How do you feel that yourself and people in similar roles need to respond to the cuts to Birmingham City Council’s arts funding? 

A great example of how I think we should be responding is the 100 Days of Creativity festival. This all came about from exactly the circumstance that you’ve just described. I looked at the calendar for Birmingham and in 2022 we had the Commonwealth Games and it was amazing and this big mega moment, and then in 2023 we had the Birmingham Festival, which was this legacy and it was exciting and it was big enough to really pin our hats to. And then I looked at what we had for 2024, and there wasn’t anything. There was nothing that said, ‘Birmingham is still open and an amazing place to live, work, and play.’ But when I dug deeper, there was so much going on, all these highlights, like 60 years of Ikon, B-side returning, Flatpack Festival bigger than ever. But on their own, those individual things weren’t enough for the city to go, ‘hey, look at us!’ So the idea behind 100 days of creativity was to, on a very shoestring budget, find a way to shout loudly and proudly about Birmingham being open, to platform creative industries, but in a way that didn’t require massive Arts Council funding or massive private funding either. And I think we’re going to have to think creatively, like that. 

Collaboration and partnership is the only way as a city that we’re going to be able to continue to achieve

There’s no magic wand we can wave to say, ‘okay, Birmingham City Council doesn’t have any money, we’ll go here instead.’ I think collaboration and partnership is the only way as a city that we’re going to be able to continue to achieve. And whenever I’m looking at an event idea or a festival or campaign, I’m looking at how we can bring other things into it, how can we scale it in a way that doesn’t mean more resources? It just means bringing people together to do more with less, and 100 days is a really good example of that too. 

So, what is 100 Days of Creativity?

100 Days of Creativity is a collaborative showcase of creativity in the city. It’s very simple: on the Visit Birmingham website, anyone that fancies seeing what’s on from a creative perspective can head to, and there are hundreds and hundreds of events that have all been put on by creative partners in the city. The idea was that it wasn’t just open to cultural organisations, but also to creative businesses and freelancers doing cool events. If you’re doing something creative in Birmingham, you can list it here, if you’re prepared to join the movement. To list events on 100 Days of Creativity, organisers put a proposal through to us, but they also had to pledge, and the pledge was all about sharing other people’s events and activities and sharing the campaign. What that means is that you have organisations as big as the NEC promoting Girls Aloud as part of 100 Days of Creativity, but by doing so, they were also promoting Kaye Winwood, this small producer of immersive events in the Jewellery Quarter. You have this beautiful ability to allow these organisations to support each other. 

Finally, what is it about Birmingham that makes it such a great cultural location, and how is it stepping up to this challenge? Why do you love Birmingham?

I’m an adopted Brummie actually! I’ve been here for 10 years now, I moved up for a job, and when I first moved here I had a very different perception of Birmingham, what I would describe as a London media perception of this city. I actually came to Birmingham not particularly excited about being here, a little nervous that my whole life was down south, and scared that Birmingham wouldn’t have the culture, the green spaces, the safety that I was used to.  I really try to hold on to that impression that I had before I moved to the city, because it was so wrong. So, so wrong. I try to remember how I felt, because it’s fuel for me to help try and change that perception. 

There is so much going on in this city: we have world-class theatre, world-class exhibitions, world-class dance companies. We have incredibly creative people in every sense of the word

Over the pandemic I did a big showcase of the parks in Birmingham, where I visited over 60 to try to promote the green spaces here, because I know that’s not a message about the city that gets out as much as it should. And I feel the same to a certain extent about creativity. There is so much going on in this city: we have world-class theatre, world-class exhibitions, world-class dance companies. We have incredibly creative people in every sense of the word, but I don’t think that when people from outside think of Birmingham they think ‘Ah! A hub of creativity!’. I’m not going to change that perception, but I don’t need to. It all exists already; people are doing amazing things. What I’m trying to do is shine a light on the incredible work that’s happening. My time in Birmingham museums where I got to know the city’s heritage, the city’s collection and the people of Birmingham – I initially managed the volunteer program, so I met 600 amazing people who all cared deeply enough about the city to volunteer for the museum service. That shaped my view of the city, and I love it so deeply now that I can’t imagine leaving. It’s absolutely home and I want to do my bit to change the incredibly outdated perceptions. 

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