A pop-up shop for artists in Birmingham has opened in the Bullring. Alison Jones takes a look.
We had somebody walk in and say ‘It is just like walking into a blog’,” reveals Chris Unitt, online champion of Birmingham’s creative and artistic community – and temporary shopkeeper.
The customer’s response shows that Chris and his team have achieved their ambition in making the Created in Birmingham (CiB) shop in the city’s Bullring “the physical manifestation of the website”.
That award-winning Created in Birmingham online platform was started back in 2006, by Pete Ashton, as a way of both celebrating and publicising the activities of the city’s creative community – its artists, entertainers, writers and designer-makers.
Chris, one of the leading lights in blogging/social media in Birmingham and MD of digital agency Meshed Media in Fazeley Studios, first edited CiB in 2008 and then returned to the job last October, determined to put things on a more commercial basis.
Meshed Media had been working with Bullring on its Life Feel Better campaign, its feel-good arts and events project which is running throughout the year.
“They were talking to me about what was going on in arts and culture and I floated the idea of a pop-up shop for independent artists and they offered me a shop unit.”
The vacant unit, roughly opposite the Apple store, was offered rent and rates free. It meant the people CiB had been championing could come out their workshops and spare rooms and instead of selling their wares at festivals or online would have the opportunity to do it in Birmingham’s retail mecca.
The offer was made at the beginning of February and CiB set itself a target of having the shop “popped up” and running within three weeks,
A call was put out through the website for people to bring in their work. Others, like Smile, the Birmingham-based design and branding agency which make visually arresting prints and street signs and whose rise Chris had been following over the past couple of years, were approached directly.
The shelves were stocked and the walls filled in what he describes a “fairly organic” process.
“We have been responding to what people have been bringing in rather than sourcing and we have been impressed with the quality, considering it was an open call. The standard has been fantastic.
“The ones I have been most pleased with are the ones I’ve never heard of. We have been writing about the creative interest sector (in CiB) for more than three years and it just goes to show that there are so many people in this city creating stuff to a really good standard that we have never come across.
“We also get a lot of students coming in who are just getting their careers started and who wouldn’t normally have an outlet.”
The result has been an eclectic mix of jewellery, prints and posters, photography, badges, zines, handmade cards and some clothes.
There have been contributions from artists including illustrator Sarah Ray, jewellery makers Wychbury and Laura Kirk of Kitsch, Sola, a photographer who plays with lightforms, bag-maker Mitsu & Co, Atta-Girl, who does zines and screen-printed items, and Bostin, who make comedy Black Country and Brummie T-Shirts.
There have even been pop-up stalls with Flatpack Festival taking up temporary residence to promote its week of films being screened at locations across Birmingham until March 28.
But the haphazardness of the contents is balanced by the professional gloss that comes from being within the modern mall.
Discovering what sells has been a process of trial and error. Pete Ashton has drawn up guidelines on the CiB website suggesting prices and the kind of products that have been appealing to the Bullring consumer, recommending that prints are preferred over paintings and that original art or anything priced above £60 is better saved for an art gallery.
Chris says that he hopes the shop’s presence has also benefitted the Bullring by filling what would otherwise be an empty unit and by attracting customers who wouldn’t normally frequent the centre, but who have come to browse round the artists’ work.
“We are certainly doing Ikea a favour as that’s where everyone is getting their frames from,” he laughs.
The generosity of the Bullring has meant that CiB can keep the cost to sellers as low as possible. Stalls can be hired for £30 a day and the work on the walls is sold with a 25 per cent commission going to CiB, much less than a conventional commercial gallery.
“We are not trying to make a huge profit or get rich off everybody else. The shop is here as a platform for what everyone else is doing,” says Chris. “And putting money in artists’ pockets feels good to do.”
He appreciates the irony that the online site’s venture into retail has been done in the real world.
“There are plans to do an online shop at some point but we were gifted an opportunity to do this and it was too good to turn down. But everything we do online is really about driving an offline, interactive experience.”
The shop is due to remain open until May 1.
“We don’t have to be out by then, we can be in until they have a paying tenant, but we have set ourselves that date because we don’t want to lose focus.
“The shop is also being heavily subsidised by Meshed Media. We don’t have any funding, only the support from the Bullring.”
Chris believes that its temporary nature works in its favour, giving it the freedom to be more daring.
“It keeps things interesting. We can take a chance on a pop shop as they are often free from the financial realities faced by ordinary units.
“We can make mistakes, do things differently, provide an alternative.
“We can burn brightly for a short period of time and attract interest which we might not be able to do on a sustainable basis.”
* The Created in Birmingham shop is on the top floor of the Bullring near Debenhams. It is open Monday-Saturday, 11am to 7pm; and Sunday, 11am to 5pm. For details go to www.createdinbirmingham.com/bullring-shop