In Conversation with FABRICA Gallery
Interview conducted by Annabelle Kiff and Nia Martinez
Special thanks to director Liz Whitehead for giving us this opportunity.
FABRICA is a contemporary art gallery nestled in Brighton’s centre in a slightly battered former 19th century chapel with original features still remaining, creating a nurturing and curative environment, which reflects the gallery’s focal points. Fabrica’s beginnings as an artist initiative 25 years ago continues to inform where they are now, with the organisation aiming to be both educational and provocative with their exhibitions. The Channel had the opportunity to sit down with Fabrica’s director, Liz Whitehead for a personal chat about this local gallery, and the opportunities that come with it.
Photograph by Ben Harding in courtesy of Fabrica Gallery
A: So what did you study at uni and was that local?
L: I studied a materials based course at University of Brighton, although at the time it was a polytechnic, and it was focused around this idea of the artist-maker. What I gained from that was that I found myself to be a good maker, but when I left, I knew I didn’t want to be working in a studio on my own. I realised that generally as an artist you make an artwork and you exhibit it, and you’re not really part of that feedback loop of people viewing the work. I wanted to witness that so I started to get involved in community contexts working creatively with people who weren’t artists. And I joined a group studio: Red Herring, where I met more artists who were interested in this. There were about 4 of us who were really interested in the idea that the process of creating art would be of interest to audiences. We wanted to investigate that, and so we set up Fabrica.
We discussed the different thematics and challenges that have framed the artworks they have shown over time:
L: We’ve often explored human themes like death, marriage, birth, the body. Since 2014, we’ve looked more at environmental issues, and thematics like landscape and locality. We’re really engaging with The Living Coast (Brighton, Hove & Lewes Downs UNESCO Biosphere) and understanding what that means to people in tangible, experiental and scientific ways.
A: The whole premise around supporting early and mid-career artists to make new work and providing a platform to exhibit - is this what is special about this place?
L: Most artists need funded opportunities to make work; things like money, space, technical support, expertise about reaching and building audiences for their work. Making your way in the art world takes time and skill, when you’re climbing the rock face, you need a little platform here and handholds there to make your way up.
A: It’s interesting what you said about, when people think of a gallery they think of whitewashed walls and it being an open, almost empty space, whereas the approach you take is different.
L: The building is churchy, which definitely creates restrictions in terms of commissioning and presenting work, but that also creates opportunities. And over the years artists have responded to those opportunities in fascinating ways. I think from the beginning, we recognised that Fabrica is situated on a busy shopping street, so there’s an opportunity for an encounter with art here, even though people are not setting out to go to an art gallery. You can literally pop in as you are walking by, plus entry is free. And it’s the building itself that can immerse you in something else entirely when you step inside, I think we’re always trying to find new ways of bringing the building into the work we exhibit.
Photograph by Tom Thistlethwaite in courtesy of Fabrica Gallery
The work that goes into supporting a residency here is substantial. Liz tells us that a relationship with these artists will often start 12 months before the residency is actually held, and the relationship will likely continue for years after. Fabrica’s mission is to bring art to as broad an audience as possible, with outreach work in local community settings and ensuring exhibitions are free and events free or at a low ticket cost.
L: We have around 200 volunteers on our books at any one time, with about 100 volunteers actively working with us over the course of a year. Our volunteers support Fabrica across all areas of our work, and we invest a lot of time into creating a good experience for people that is not just functional but also developmental, so once someone is in the volunteer pool, there are lots of fascinating things to get involved in.
A: So it was your volunteering background that brought you to where you are today with the gallery?
L: Yeah, I come from a social background where my parents weren’t tertiary educated, and they weren’t working in the arts. They’re very creative people in their own ways and they consumed art, but they weren’t professionals. I come from a small village in the Pennines so I feel very grateful that I found my way into the arts through volunteering, doing art at school and then University. It’s very distressing for me to see art being pushed out of schools, and increasingly universities too, so young people from my kind of background might not have those opportunities that lead to working professionally in the arts.
N: How would you say working with people from different backgrounds and communities has impacted the gallery?
L: We’re always interested in what people have to say, and so the more diverse it is, the better because there’s some incredibly thoughtful observations that come through people experiencing the work. For example, the work we’ve developed with older audiences turned our minds to thinking about what is important philosophically about being older: the sense of perspective on life that it offers, and the positive aspects of ageing, as opposed to the negative ones that are more usually portrayed in the press and media. This led to a series of commissions on death and dying and events that celebrated staying well in later life; it’s an aspect of life that we all need to think about whatever age we are, but these are subjects that older people have a much deeper insight into. My personal agenda in all this is that I’m really interested in what happens to people through art, it’s all about communication, reflection and understanding.
It was Fabrica’s 25 anniversary last year, and they are still celebrating by sharing different volunteer stories and visitors' experiences. You can check them out under the #MyFabrica tag on social media or on their website: https://www.fabrica.org.uk/.
Photographs by Tillie Lam/The Channel