For 50 years, the present moment has always been the most exciting time to be at Birmingham’s pioneering Ikon Gallery in Brindleyplace.

From starting out as an octagonal, glass-walled kiosk in the old Bull Ring shopping centre half a century ago, it moved three years later to a decommissioned mortuary in Swallow Street and then in late 1978 to John Bright Street.

After 16 years in its current home, its finger-on-the-pulse “gallery without walls” attitude has cemented Ikon’s place as one of the country’s flagship, independent, not-for-profit art galleries.

As its director since 1999, 56-year-old Jonathan Watkins knows that journey hasn’t always been easy, particularly through the firebrand years of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

But the energy and determined vision of Ikon’s five directors to date have won the day. Ikon has become an icon.

Jonathan Watkins, director of the Ikon Gallery in Brindleyplace
Jonathan Watkins, director of the Ikon Gallery in Brindleyplace
 

No building in the city is prettier, nor more suited to its core purpose, than its home in the gothic, 1870 former Oozells Street School.

Reopened as the Ikon Gallery in March 1988 by the then Ladywood MP Clare Short, every major exhibition reinvents its interior.

None more so than the current temporary artwork of British artist David Tremlett, whose current exhibition 3 Drawing Rooms, uses rectangular blocks of vivid colours to “retune” our perception of interior shape.

For all of this craft and dynamism which currently supports about 25 staff servicing annual visitor numbers of 120,000 and rising, it’s also true that Ikon is probably a destination still waiting to be discovered by many.

As we sit down to chat in the recently-opened Café Opus on the ground floor, I show Jonathan the front page news of the day, with every national reporting the arrest of teenage pop star Justin Bieber for allegedly driving a hired, yellow Lamborghini while under the influence.

It’s a classic example of how life – and society’s values – have changed during Ikon’s 50 years.

And why the job of being a gallery director who can keep abreast of the times is so challenging and rewarding.

Jonathan picks up the paper to look at its front page for the first of what must be a dozen times.

“You can be too po-faced,” says the father of two.

“I am fascinated by popular culture.”

Having lived through the age of post modernism in the 1980s which exposed new fissures in popular culture, he doesn’t see a “huge gulf” between this part of life and fine art.

“I am currently organising an exhibition about that decade in Birmingham and the breakdown of modernist values,” says Jonathan.

“I am interested to read about it (Justin Bieber) as much as anybody else.

“The distinction between pop and classical music made by my parents... I wouldn’t make it now.

“There’s room for all of that. But you have to go with what’s happening and people are interested (in Bieber), thinking: ‘What’s that all about?’”

We laugh at the idea that David Tremlett’s work might only make page one news were Bieber to crash a car into Ikon’s entrance.

“He ends up on the front page because he can’t drive properly,” says Jonathan.

“This is part of the world that we’re in and it informs the way we think about things.”

Jonathan finds little time to watch reality TV, but is impressively aware of the furore surrounding Channel 4’s current Birmingham-based series Benefits Street nonetheless.

“Some ‘caring’ middle class people will think (its subjects) are being exploited,” he says. “Others will take a more right wing view.”

Current exhibition by David Tremlett, makes a vast new work for Ikon, transforming its second floor galleries with geometric shapes, applied directly to the walls.
Current exhibition by David Tremlett, makes a vast new work for Ikon, transforming its second floor galleries with geometric shapes, applied directly to the walls.
 

Recalling city-born Richard Billingham’s controversial Family Portraits exhibition in 2000, he knows the artist’s parents were proud of him, yet others felt Richard was exploiting the pair by showing his father as an alcoholic and his mother as obese.

“The press is very adversarial,” Jonathan reasons. “The process is about selling newspapers, like a drama giving people what they want.

“Or challenging things in a way you think your readers would like to see things challenged.

“You have got to take heed of what your people are interested in. You can’t preach to them. I really believe in them.”

Would Jonathan like to have been a national newspaper editor himself, if only to redress the imbalance of what’s not important making the front pages?

“Oh... there are so many jobs,” he laughs. “Football player, oyster farmer... you can only live one life and so many doors close behind you.”

Before our meeting, the former director of London’s Serpentine Gallery (1995-97) had been at an awards night with Jan Dalley, the Financial Times’ arts editor.

“She made a very impassioned plea for newspapers and their survival,” Jonathan says.

“It was a very moving speech... she was speaking up for quality and informed opinion.”

And yet, in its review of the city’s Photorealism exhibition in the Gas Hall, even the Daily Telegraph’s critic had begun his report with a comment about the accents of the gallery’s staff.

He then looked down his nose at a 50-year-old way of blurring the lines between art and photography.

“They are missing the point,” says Jonathan. “Photorealism is incredibly relevant.

“(In April, 1965) the first artist Ikon ever showed was John Salt, an internationally-renowned photorealist from Birmingham.

“John found himself attracted to that style in a city with such close links to the pre-Raphaelite movement and later Arts & Crafts.

“It’s really interesting to make comparisons between the two and about how they looked at cars (given our motor city heritage) and surfaces.”

The first time I met Jonathan was in his office, shortly after I’d interviewed an artist there.

We’d exchanged the usual brief pleasantries before he gave me a chocolate bar to take home.

Having got to know him since, I decide it’s time to return the favour.

Putting a banana down in front of him, I wonder what he sees.

Genuinely touched, and confessing to not having had any fruit for breakfast, he thanks me and says: “It reminds me of the record cover for the first Velvet Underground album (March 1967).”

I’d recently asked this question of a class of 10-year-olds I was visiting at Kings Heath’s Colmore Junior School.

Equally impressively, none of them claimed it was a banana either.

The first child said it was a smile, the second added that it was a telephone.

Self portrait by Deutchse Bank's 2013 Artist of the Year Imran Qureshi, soon to be featured in the coming months at the Ikon gallery
Self portrait by Deutchse Bank's 2013 Artist of the Year Imran Qureshi, soon to be featured in the coming months at the Ikon gallery
 

I stopped at the tenth variation when one boy humorously observed that it could be a mono brow.

Jonathan chuckles, too, reflecting how the idea that “art for art... as purely an aesthetic experience, is so obviously wrong.”

He talks again about David Tremlett’s exhibition.

“David will say to you... ‘this isn’t about anything. It’s just pastel on a wall. Just colour’.

“Yet Australian artist Tim Johnson (The Luminescent Ground, floor one) can see infinity in a grain of sand.

“It’s great to see how they have got to know each other.

“David is the arch pragmatist. Tim is a man of faith in the widest sense.”

Jonathan is especially thankful that many of the gallery’s founders and early pioneers are still able to share in its success after 50 years.

“They are still very engaged with us,” he says.

“It’s like a family and I’m part of that and I convey to them how much I appreciate their efforts.”

Both proud and privileged to be able to review their collective energy, Jonathan notes how “the line between popular culture and fine art was blurring in the 1960s.”

Subsequent decades led to conceptualism, feminism and post modernism.

The 1980s, though, had their own problems but which, in hindsight, he believes, positively challenged those in charge at the time to really evaluate what they were doing.

“It’s been fascinating reading our reports back,” says Jonathan.

“There was a nasty atmosphere in the 1980s (towards arts funding).

“That was affecting the way people were writing, talking and behaving. There was a certain paranoia developing as a result. But Ikon got through it. Funding was not abolished despite the threats.

“And we came out (of the decade) stronger than when we went in.

“But it was harrowing, and made Ikon think about what was important at a time when the board, and its director, were fighting for this institution and their beliefs.”

In the meantime, Ikon has “significantly shifted” its main focus from localism to internationalism.

This year’s featured artists include the first solo exhibition by Iraqi-Kurdish artist Jamal Penjweny, Belgian artist Michael Francois, the sculptural work of Korean artist Lee Bul, Deutchse Bank’s 2013 Artist of the Year Imran Qureshi (Pakistan) and a video installation by Angolan artist Nastio Mosquito.

Not forgetting the minimalist aesthetics of Norwegian artist A.K. Dolven and a Tower Room tribute to Robert Groves, the artist who gave Ikon its name in 1964.

“Ikon was a very local affair when it started and that really made people much more inward looking,” says Jonathan.

Bob Groves, part of the founding group of artists at the Ikon Gallery.
Bob Groves, part of the founding group of artists at the Ikon Gallery.
 

“By the 1970s, it’s like we were operating in all corners of the world.”

Is it possible to foresee what Ikon might be doing in another 50 years’ time?

“I’ve given that a lot of thought recently,” he muses.

“It’s all about transforming the artistic experience.

“Encouraging a more thoughtful judgement of the world.

“The fact that art can be anything as we encounter it.

“What are we dealing with? Not a self-contained object or gesture, it’s relational.”

And what of the city itself as Ikon embarks on its second half century?

“Birmingham needs to be bigger,” says Jonathan.

“We need a museum of contemporary art, but not one like the Tate Modern.

“We need to innovate with good faith and not retreat to an old, romantic idea of what art is.

“You can’t expect people to silently worship framed articles on a wall. That would be dangerous.

“Birmingham hasn’t got a museum of modern art, but Ikon could reinvent the model.”

To that end, Jonathan had outline plans drawn up for an Ikon 2 museum in Eastside.

That has all but been abandoned because of the drag effect of the uncertainty over HS2 (which he supports).

If built, the terminal will use twice as much space as originally envisaged and require more land, including the area first outlined for Ikon 2.

“I feel proud of the way we undertook the feasibility study,” says Jonathan.

“We just can’t start it now and, since you are looking at the best part of 10 years to establish a museum, that would take us from 2026 (after HS2) to 2035.”

Already its longest-serving director, Jonathan adds: “I don’t think I will still be here then.

“As happens in Cologne, the idea was that when people would arrive there, they’d be entering a “museum district” and so less likely to denigrate the city.

“An alternative, now, is the wholesale market site, an interesting area close to the Birmingham Hippodrome and Chinese and gay quarters.

“It was originally suggested before Eastside, but that was seen as a better fit (in terms of new visitors seeing Birmingham) as a place of culture rather then retail.”

Acutely aware of how “progress” like HS2 can destroy heritage, Jonathan’s admiration for the new Library of Birmingham doesn’t stop him from revering the old one, too.

If he had his way, it would be converted into another use.

“We had its architect John Madin here just before he died,” says Jonathan.

“Birmingham does have a heritage and Ikon is part of that (indeed, it was 10 years old by the time the Central Library was being opened).

“In an ideal world I would refurbish the Central Library and make it into the building that the architect wanted it to be – not concrete but faced with marble.

“It’s not the best, but the Central Library (like Birmingham) is also not a building that deserved the negative criticism that it’s had.”

After we part company, Jonathan disappears with his banana while I walk to the upper floors.

It’s inside Tremlett’s 3 Drawing Rooms exhibition that I meet London-based artist Seema Rao and her four-year-old son, Dune.

He’s waving a musical stick from the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery shop while looking at the rectangular shapes on the walls.

Seema says: “We have friends in Birmingham and I often drive up here to show Dune the museums and galleries instead of sending him to nursery.

“We’ve just been trying to find a school for him and today I’ve just had a letter of acceptance from one where the head teacher said to me: ‘Don’t worry about teaching him the alphabet – that will be our job’.

“Just let him be himself and be silly. You can’t get those years back.

“I was so happy to hear a teacher talking like that. I don’t know what Dune will grow up to be, but I just want him to be happy.”

As well as being brought up to have an open, inquiring, receptive mind, he certainly has the look of an artist and sports lots of charismatic hair just like Jonathan.

Given that Dune will only be 54 in 2064, who knows... one day he might either be a special guest at Ikon’s centenary. Or even its director.

Cornelia Parker Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988) at the Ikon Gallery
Cornelia Parker Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988) at the Ikon Gallery
 

50 years revisited

To celebrate the 50th anniversary, Ikon Icons is being launched in the gallery’s Tower Room, where the work of five key British artists who have previously been featured here will be displayed.

John Salt was the first artist to have an exhibition at Ikon, in April 1965, on the point of his embrace of photorealism, before Ian Emes’ 1972 film animation French Windows, which was the start of a

brilliant career inspired by Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album.

In 1988, Cornelia Parker exhibited her seminal work Thirty Pieces of Silver.

Ten years later, Yinka Shonibare’s combination of found objects and African fabric was a defining moment.

The ambitious programme for the new millennium included a survey of new work by Julian Opie. Ikon 1980s will also be a highlight of the anniversary year – it will review Ikon’s programme from 1978-1989.

The comprehensive selection of paintings, sculpture, installation, film and photography will showcase a pivotal decade in British art history and include the work of Helen Chadwick, Dennis Oppenheim, Vanley Burke, Sean Scully and Susan Hiller.

Founding artists

In 1964, an “extraordinary donation” from Birmingham-based couple Angus and Midge Skene enabled a group of local artists to realise their dream of starting an art gallery.

Jesse Bruton, Robert Groves, Sylvani Merilion and David Prentice. Others who helped to develop and articulate their original vision included Peter Berry, Trevor Denning, Dinah Prentice and John Salt.

For a limited time all private donations to the current Ikon 50 Appeal will be matched by Arts Council England – effectively doubling individual contributions.