It is true that artists are just ordinary people like you and I, just fellow members of the ‘public’ or more accurately members of the many publics that overlap in our city.

Artists are ordinary people who chose to study and make art. Artists are part of a proud tradition, of course, which connects to other proud traditions of engineering and manufacturing in Birmingham.

Our city wears its pride for the craftsmanship of the citizens of Birmingham on its coat of arms.

Did you know that Birmingham’s coat of arms portrays an artist and an engineer?

I feel this is a significant symbol of what Birmingham has stood for and can continue to stand for. Imagination and technical ingenuity hand in hand. We need to reinvigorate that tradition.

Tradition in art is to question what art is, can be, should be and why. That is the tradition I believe Birmingham should be engaging with, should be demanding.

Demand art that questions why we are here, not art that accepts a status quo, as that probably isn’t art anyway, just something sparkly that speaks of a lost empire of the past.

Apologies for making that sound too interesting. It’s not.

The statue is the artform of the status quo par excellence. Statues speak of empire and whilst they can evoke some of the achievements of old empires they also speak of all the terrible things that sustained them and allowed then to flourish. Many are still with us in one form or another.

The city is to get a new statue though, and soon.

Ikon Gallery and the Library of Birmingham have commissioned Gillian Wearing to make a statue of the ‘family of Birmingham’.

This public artwork appears to me to be of its time through its process of illuminating issues of faux democracy.

Gavin Wade, of Eastside Projects
Gavin Wade, of Eastside Projects

Wearing’s sculpture should question why people want public statues in the first place and, if it is successful, should be one more vital artwork towards Birmingham being a city of a thousand artworks!

So the next ‘next’ artwork in the city doesn’t need to be a statue. It needs to be something else. Something we can’t imagine right now.

Before the recession hit in 2008 a decision had been made, of which I was part, to commission the New York based British artist Liam Gillick to make a £1.5million public artwork at Snowhill as part of, and paid for by, the Ballymore development.

It would have been a world-class public artwork on a very large scale and I believe would have been an artwork to admire and compare to all around the world.

Gillick’s artwork was to fashion gigantic sculptural words asking questions about why art is made for ‘high value knowledge workers’ and even questioned whether his own public art work was necessary, pointing out that by itself even a £1.5million artwork would not provide a critical art context effectively.

He suggested that his artwork would only succeed if it was part of a larger sphere of intelligent cultural thinking.

The artwork of our city can be both historical and of our time. But we currently only have historical permanent public artworks. We have no 21st century artworks. This is ridiculous. Have we forgotten the artist on our own coat of arms?

Imagine a city made of artworks by many recognised pioneering international artists, a Liam Gillick or Yinka Shonibare here, a Tracey Emin, Susan Philipsz or Dan Graham there, or the ubiquitous Anish Kapoor reflecting our city somewhere.

I would admire some of these works and ideologically reject others.

We SHOULD hate some and love others, find powerful connections and have strong suspicions. Our city should be confident about dealing with difference and oppositions as much as synergies of ideas. We should be about asking questions in public.

Antony Gormley’s austere 1993 rusting sculpture ‘Iron Man’ in Victoria Square is the last artwork of its time installed in Birmingham.

It exists in a context of questioning what art was in the 1980s and 90s. Gormley referenced historical art in the form of statues but produced an arguably ‘new’ plinthless statue using Birmingham’s tradition of ‘iron’ industry.

Victoria Square sculpture The River - also known as the "Floozie in the Jacuzzi"
Victoria Square sculpture The River - also known as the "Floozie in the Jacuzzi"

Whereas the ‘Floozie in the Jacuzzi’ in Victoria Square, or the ‘Forward Statue’ of Centenary Square, for example, are merely city decoration and not art at all in my mind.

They are not ‘of our time’ nor ‘of a time past’. They are ornaments. The much loved large decorative fountain and much reviled ‘Forward Statue’ don’t so much reference historical statues as mimic them in a nostalgic attempt to believe that art has stayed the same.

But it hasn’t and won’t. Art refuses to stand still. The ‘floozie in the jacuzzi’ is an example of the public imagining it was getting an artwork but ending up with a placebo. The public burned down the ‘Forward Statue’, which ironically gave it some gravitas!

Eastside Projects is about to install a four-metre marble column outside Millennium Point by the Dutch artist Jennifer Tee. The artwork was paid for by Eastside Projects with funds raised from Arts Council England, The Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the Dutch Mondriaan Foundation in 2010 and was first installed in our gallery.

It is a modest scale artwork, an elegant and simple monument. It has a text carved out of the marble that says LOCAL MYTHS. Tee’s artwork is a boundary marker for myths about areas, about Eastside, about aspirations and failures. You bring the ‘myths’ to it.

It may spark local conversations and lead to memories that travel the world but I would hate for the local myths to be that Birmingham doesn’t trust its own artists to imagine their city.

I would hate for the myth to be that Birmingham fell out of love with the artist on its own coat of arms.

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