As part of our series on ‘Sustainable, Clean and Creative Balsall Heath’ we feature this interview with Hannah Greenwood, part of the team who manage The Old Print Works. Hannah was speaking with Elisabeth Charis.
The Old Print Works is a creative hub housed in a Grade II listed building in the heart of Balsall Heath. We spoke to Hannah Greenwood, Chair of Trustees, who works on a mostly volunteer basis, about the building, challenges to the project and being part of a designer-maker community, as the charity approaches its 10-year anniversary.
I certainly don’t remember looking over any kind of lease documents because I’m sure that I would have said, don’t be ridiculous. Although, I have the same optimism bias [as Ian Greenwood, the founder] and it was back before the beginning of the fall out to the financial crisis. It wasn’t clear that all the funding was going to dry up and everything was going to go pear shaped. Actually, I probably would have been just as hopeful – thinking we could change the world. We became a charity in 2013. I wasn’t hands-on in any way back then – just on the Board. It felt a bit exciting but, overall, frustrating. Nothing was getting done as quickly as it needed to.
With projects like this, if you really drilled down and did the proper analysis you would not do it. We had conversations with a ‘Business Angel’ where you could get some pro bono work from an expert. We had somebody do a proper analysis of the project in 2014 or 15, even after we had people in the building and they said, you need to close this place down. There’s absolutely no way you can make this financially viable before you bankrupt yourselves. Which is essentially what would have happened if Ian hadn’t put more money into it. Mortgaging to the hilt at his age was a risk. But we are really starting to see signs now that it was worth it. I hope so.
We really want a focus on making and practical hand skills as opposed to the digital. There’s a lot of places where you can go and get the digital experience and learn a digital way of doing what would have been a practical skill before. BCU, for example, don’t have any analogue looms anymore. They’re all computerised. We definitely want to have a focus on actual making. And also crossover stuff as well and using the sharing of experiences between the people at The Old Print Works and others.
I love being part of the community. People say how much of a difference it makes to have other people being creative around them. I really like seeing that synergy. It enriches everybody’s practice when people who have different skills are working together or working near to each other. We’ve seen lots of examples of that already with collaborations. There’s a master carpenter, Jerry, who has done lots of different work at The Old Print Works. There was a strong collaboration between a silversmith and Jerry who made some display things for him. They made some items together that were wooden and silver. There are loads of other examples.
In a parallel universe it would have been lovely to do more about the history. JH Butcher, that were in the building before – the actual art work they did and the processes were really interesting. Also, they were really at the top of their game. They were world leaders in Transfers. They were absolutely raking it in. They must have had so much money at some point. But when things became digitised later in the 20th century that’s when the market became swamped with lots of different stickers. All of their profit margins had to be slashed and they were no longer installing state-of-the-art-everything, which they seemed to originally. Throughout the factory, you can see the different phases of how everything’s developed and it’s so fascinating. I would love to celebrate that more. Yet we’ve been stuck on trying to make the place financially viable.
We’re still working very much on a majority volunteer model. We have made a slight improvement to that recently so that all of us are paid something now. The building is verging on full all the time at the moment, which is great. COVID has happened as well so we haven’t been having any of the sessional hire that we would have had. Because of the co-working space being closed and the lack of sessional hire we’re down about £3,000 a month. Even with all of the units fully occupied we would have to do an absolutely massive amount of programming and hire of meeting rooms and be constantly be doing that kind of stuff to get anywhere near to paying for the staffing that is required to run the building.
We are often up on the roof fixing small things. Either the glass is cracked or the glass has moved or the lead joining the windows is degrading. The area where there are those windows is immense. You feel a bit like Sherlock Holmes. The amount of time we spend thinking about jobs or problems, sleuthing out where the water is actually getting in, that would not be an issue if we had the money to replace all those. We spend a day and a half a week doing practical things in the building [but] there are times when we do have to say we’re not doing any practical things this week because we’ve got too much other stuff to do: it’s a really focused week and I’m looking at spreadsheets and I’m looking at proposals and all of that kind of thing.
We’re always juggling. We could put another bid* in for some more improvements which we really need but we also need to put our time into looking at the possible purchase which we really, really need but if we do both of those two things there will be absolutely no way over the next two years that we’ll have any time to improve our social impact or programme or any of the things that we’re supposed to be here for!
We also deliver social impact through having other people in the building who do those things. We offer discounts for [those] people. It’s our platform model and one that we want to celebrate. We’re really glad that all of those people are doing their little bits of community impact but we’d really like to have time to have more impact than we do. Historically, there have been a lot of people from B13 and B14 accessing the building and that seems to happen quite naturally through word of mouth and social media. Whereas, we haven’t always managed to naturally attract in people who live right on the doorstep of The Old Print Works. We currently have a volunteer talking to other organisations in the area thinking about how we can do some community consultation. Finding out whether people even think of The Old Print Works and if they do, what they think of it.
I have a strong desire to help the different things that are going on in Balsall Heath to work together more. Especially the Moseley School of Art next door and the Baths opposite and the Library – to have a little bit more going on in this space with these gorgeous heritage buildings. If we were a more financially viable organisation we could do more toward those other things happening as well. The whole point of us being here is so that people can access what’s going on.
We’ve always done a B12 discount. So, if you come to Daily Thread for example, our textiles sessions, you pay a bit less if you’re from B12. It seemed the easiest way to incentivise the more local people, but just having a discount doesn’t actually bring people in. So we’re hoping with through having a little bit less to stress about with the building we might be able to put some more time into doing some projects that are aimed at the local community and a way of connecting the different services within the building. We are really committed to making more of an effort to engage those people. We want to bring the experiences that people who live in B13 and B14 take for granted to the people who live in B12 as well.
*The LEP funding (Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership) have funded about £162,000 worth of works in The Old Print Works, including an accessible toilet.
Sustainable, Clean and Creative Balsall Heath is a series of portraits of local people and projects supported with funding from The Active Wellbeing Society.