The seeds of The GAP Arts Project were sown in the first decade of the 21st century, a period which saw the rise of the TV talent shows like Pop Idol, X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent. Their mantra that talented creative young people just need to believe in themselves to find fame and fortune was all pervasive, skewing perceptions of success in the arts world and how to achieve it.
Ceri Townsend and Richard Holmes of Big Brum TIE decided they wanted to respond and initiated the setting up of a young people’s theatre company. Under their leadership a group of young people aged 13-17 from all over Birmingham constituted Theatre Ark in the Shakespeare Memorial Room of the old library on 31 January 2009. Its purpose was to give young people rounded and realistic experiences of working in an arts organisation within the creative sector of the city. As well as performing on stage, they learned essential skills such as networking, project planning, budgeting, marketing and more, taking ownership of the company and working as a team to build their collective profile. With the support of Big Brum TIE and funding from Arts Council West Midlands, they produced highly-acclaimed theatre productions at the AE Harris Factory in the Jewellery Quarter – The Crucible and The Tempest - and developed strong links with local arts and business professionals, politicians and community leaders.
From 2012 the members, facilitated and mentored by Ceri, began to experiment with new art forms: The Name of Action used Shakespeare soliloquys and film to express their experience of being a young person in Birmingham; New Light saw them create and exhibit photographic portraits of diverse young people from all areas of the city and Heartlands Hospital, countering negative representations in the media following the 2011 riots; The GAP in the Market was a two week arts festival operated from a market stall in the Bullring Indoor Market, and included craft, drama, painting, artivism, film screenings and more, plus our first oral history project documenting the careers of established Birmingham artists; The Great Brum Grub Crawl – facilitating strangers to walk, talk and share food together; and the Beyond Borders project which galvanised artists from around the city and country in support of young asylum seekers and refugees.
With the broadening of its interests the company rebranded in 2014 as The GAP Arts Project and registered as an independent charity. The first Chair of our Trustee Board was barrister and advocate for our work with young people, Iqbal Mohammed, who had himself been a member of Big Brum Youth Theatre a decade earlier. The Board developed significantly over the following years, benefiting enormously from the input and advocacy of experienced professionals in the fields of theatre, PR, business, education and science, as well as a significant number of under-30s who contributed an alternative and fresh perspective to the governance of the charity.
After a long period of meeting in coffee shops, spending the lion’s share of our project funding on hiring spaces for occasional use, and a brief tenancy in the Jubilee Building in the city centre, The GAP eventually found a permanent home in The Old Print Works in Balsall Heath. Starting with a small gloomy warehouse the organisation developed a suite of arts spaces including a gallery, performance space, workshop/meeting space, small art library and community café. The spaces are bright, flexible and inspiring, and above all form a welcoming hub for creative, cultural and community activity.
Today The GAP is a genuinely youth- and artist-led organisation. The Youth & Community lead, the Programming and Research lead, the Financial Administrator and the Treasurer of the Board are four of the original founding young members from 2009. Our café is run by a young refugee with cooking skills who we worked with on a variety of creative projects since 2016. The company has grown organically, developed its practice around these young people, their drive and skills, and provided training and mentoring, so that they have become highly experienced and skilled arts leaders, administrators and workers in their own right.
Today The GAP continues to seek ways of developing long term, transformative relationships with young people in this way, and prioritises three key communities: the local young people in and around Balsall Heath; young artists and creatives looking to build careers in the arts; and young asylum seekers, refugees and migrants.