A public forum has been held to discuss creating a piece of “innovative and highly visible” art which would put Birmingham on the map. Enda Mullen reports.
Birmingham has taken its first steps to create an iconic piece of public art that it is hoped could become as much of a landmark as the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower.
Spearheaded by Birmingham Civic Society (BCS) and backed by Birmingham City Council, the aim is to raise £1 million to create an artwork that would put the city on the international map and become a tourist attraction.
The project was recently announced by BCS and the process was formally set in motion with a public forum held in Birmingham’s council chamber.
More than 100 people turned out for the event with a lively debate taking place on what form an artwork might take and where it might be sited.
A steering group has now been established for the project and if the fundraising drive is a success BCS plans to launch an open competition to find an artist to create the artwork
The society, which hopes to unveil it in time for its centenary in 2018, says it wants to create something “innovative and highly visible” that reflects the city’s character and can be enjoyed by tourists, art lovers and successive generations.
The public forum opened with BCS vice-chairman Glyn Pitchford saying the aim was to explore what defines Birmingham, what a public work of art meant, what defined an iconic work of art and possible locations for the new artwork.
Mr Pitchford said the initial challenge was to raise funding for the scheme, which would be no easy feat in itself.
“We will have to raise at least £1 million,” he said. “Raising that funding will be our biggest challenge from the outset.”
Mr Pitchford said he hoped to recruit “at least ten big hitters” whose commercial experience and acumen would prove invaluable in helping to raise the funding to the steering group. He added that he hoped the city’s business community would become stakeholders in the project.
He said a variety of potential funding sources would be explored, with the scheme aiming to attract sponsors and benefactors, as well as applying for Arts Council England and charitable trust grants.
Mr Pitchford said: “If we get this right, not only will it impact on inward investment in the city, but it will play an important role in making this city a place people want to visit.
“We don’t visit New York just to see the Statue of Liberty, or Copenhagen just to see the Little Mermaid or Chicago just to see Cloud Gate but these must-tick boxes to see. We should try to be ambitious though – nothing ventured nothing gained – and end up with a piece of art, be it traditional, contemporary or pop art, that will put this city on the map.”
A panel of people involved in the arts in the city also addressed the meeting, including Nigel Edmondson, the city council’s city centre design manager, Gavin Wade, director of Eastside Projects and Stephen Hartland, Birmingham Civic Society trustee.
Mr Edmondson said the artwork could come under one of a number of categories, objects, places or events and urged people to be open-minded.
He also pointed to some of the city’s existing artworks as inspiration, including Antony Gormley’s Iron Man in Victoria Square which he said related to “the social context of the city”.
Mr Hartland pointed to existing public artworks in the city, including Birmingham sculptor Albert Toft’s Edward VII statue. This, he said, followed the tradition of telling the story of a place or city.
Ideas put forward by people attending the forum ranged from utilising the city’s BT Tower in some way to sculptures commemorating some of the city’s famous figures like Herbert Austin or JRR Tolkien.
Other suggestions included utilising the city’s canals, something based on the theme of its anchor hallmark symbol reflecting the heritage of the Jewellery Quarter and having the work of art close to the new High Speed 2 rail terminal.
The scheme is also being asked to consider a number of works of art, perhaps as many as ten, with the commissions being given to artists based in the city.
The BT Tower suggestion was proposed by Graham Winfield, chair of Handsworth Park Association, who said: “The most visible structure in Birmingham is the BT Tower. At the moment it is purely a functional structure but it might be interesting to see if a sculpture could be formed on it or around it. BT might even be willing to sponsor it.”
The BT Tower idea was welcomed by BCS member Keith Bracey, who said: “For me the manufacturing heritage of Birmingham is important. What did we manufacture two centuries ago that made the most impact – the pen nib. Why don’t we put a pen nib on top of the BT Tower?”
Another suggestion put forward by Small Heath resident Alan Fair was for something that emulated New York’s High Line project, where a disused elevated train track was transformed into a public and artistic amenity.
“High Line was about creating a place and it seems to me we could have something that has a relationship to the people of the city and would be long-lasting,” he said.
Neil Maybury, of Birmingham Business Focus, who suggested the Curzon Street HS2 terminal as a perfect site for a public artwork, said he believed more could be done to mark the fact the Spitfire was made in the city and added: “Another thing Birmingham is famous for is that this is the place the game of lawn tennis was first played.”
A number of artists were also present at the forum, including Tim Tolkien, who produced the Sentinel Spitfire sculpture in Castle Bromwich.
Mr Tolkien, a great-nephew of Lord Of The Rings author JRR Tolkien, said he believed the sculpture, which was created in 2000, remained the largest example of public art in the city.
“One of the things about it that I think is successful, which I think all public art should have, is a sense of place,” he said. “It belongs to its place and grows out of its place.
"These are both matters we should take into account when designing a piece of public art. Rather than bringing something in we need something that has grown out of Birmingham.”
Mr Tolkien also said the success of the project could depend on putting faith in an artist.
“What this needs is a brave commissioning body that can say to an artist, we believe in you and are going to fund you to do it,” he added.
• Film-maker and artist Steve Rainbow, who also works as a fundraiser for St Basil’s, conjured up an image of how he thought the BT Tower pen nib sculpture might look and explained why he felt inspired by the suggestion.
“I attended with great interest the public debate about a new piece of city art held at the council house," he said
"By far the best idea I heard was to utilise the BT Tower by putting a massive pen nib on the top.
"Then I thought, why not go the whole hog and turn the whole tower into a massive sculpture?
"With the £1 million funding, BT’s assistance and a generous quote from a leading construction company – both of which would benefit from the publicity – I think this could be achievable.
"In short, you’d clad the whole tower in stainless steel, allowing gaps for the current windows in the tower, put a rounded stainless steel collar on the top and then attach a massive stainless steel pen nib on top of that.
"It would look fantastic and would literally reflect the city on its surface.
"It would become arguably the biggest sculpture in the world as well as a landmark that could be seen for miles.
"It would also acknowledge the city’s past. When the British Empire was at its zenith, three quarters of the world were writing using a pen nib made in Birmingham and this literally brought the world together.
"The use of shiny metal materials is also a nod to Birmingham’s massive influence in the Industrial Revolution and its current output – 40 per cent of all jewellery in the UK is made in Birmingham.
"Plus, because the pen is mightier than the sword, you could suggest it is a massive symbol of peace.
"You could even have a small walkway build around the bottom and have images from Birmingham’s illustrious past engraved into the bottom sections of it."