One of Birmingham's most important galleries reaches major milestones this year and next. Graham Young reports.
Ikon Gallery is celebrating its 15th anniversary in Brindleyplace today – but for director Jonathan Watkins it’s still very much a work in progress.
Since taking up his post in the summer of 1999, he’s seen the gallery grow and thrive to attract 120,000 visitors per year.
At the same time, he’s achieved the personal landmark of becoming the longest serving director in its 49-year history.
But despite loving the city and Ikon’s place in it, he has but one conclusion: “There is still much work to do compared with cities like Barcelona, Chicago and Frankfurt.”
The gallery, which was formally opened in March 1998 by Ladywood MP Clare Short, was built for Oozells Street School in 1877.
The dramatic Gothic building was a product of the 1870 Education Act which led to an explosion of new schools throughout the country.
The building continued to operate as a school until the late 1960s before housing everything from a theatrical costume hire department to a road tax office.
With other local buildings being increasingly vandalised, the tower of Oozells Street school was taken down in the 1970s while the building was still in use.
The building came very close to demolition around 1990, when the site around it was cleared.
The school itself was not at that time proposed for retention in any scheme of redevelopment, but was incorporated into the Brindleyplace masterplan following a campaign by the Victorian Society.
Today, Ikon employs 25 people on average and is a registered charity, supported using public funding from Arts Council England and Birmingham City Council.
Jonathan believes that visiting galleries like Ikon and other visual arts centres are the key to growth. “Birmingham needs a new museum, it needs more places for families and things to do,” he argues.
“That’s why we benefit in Brindleyplace.
“Families come here at the weekend without necessarily knowing what they are going to.
Although Birmingham has an infamous reputation for knocking good buildings down, Ikon is testimony to the value of conservation and preservation.
“It’s good that they didn’t knock everything down,” says Jonathan, who will be curator of the Iraq Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale from June to November, 2013.
“Ikon was one of the first facilities in the Brindleyplace equation and when we opened, before I got here, two of the sides of the square had still to be built.
“It’s lovely that we have two floors to play with, so that you can juxtapose things and come to surprising conclusions.”
Another attraction for Jonathan in taking the job – and what is now seen as his favourite period in retrospect – was the dawn of the new millennium.
“We were able to do a lot of new things and show off Ikon’s outgoing nature – that we are not just a building,” he says.
“Ikon has been involved with Brindleyplace, the canals, concerts and even shops, so that’s been a great way to set an agenda.
“We work tirelessly and are pretty excited about what’s happening now and are certainly not resting on our laurels. It’s also great that we have such good neighbours, too.”
Being next to the International Convention Centre and National Indoor Arena is also handy in terms of delivering new visitors.
“We get lots of politicians during the political conferences – and pop stars, too,” says Jonathan.
“People like to come here before a concert, so sometimes we’ll have a mini-rush before 8pm if the CBSO is playing.”
Since 2011, Ikon has been the Arts Champion for Northfield, providing free arts activities with, and for, a wide range of communities across the four wards of Weoley, Northfield, Longbridge and Kings Norton.
Slow Boat (www.ikonslowboat.com) is a 2011-2013 canal project aimed at young people and organised in partnership with the Canal & River Trust as part of its Contemporary Art on the Waterways Programme.
In January, it was announced that Ikon Gallery had been awarded £457,387 by Arts Council England to replace, repair and modernise parts of its building. A new development for 2013 has been the recent opening of Café Opus on the ground floor in Oozells Square, run by nearby Opus restaurant to increase the standard of catering at the venue.
Longer term, there is outline planning permission to develop an Ikon 2 gallery in the Curzon Street area, possibly by 2020.
For now, no matter how much Jonathan likes it here, he knows that Birmingham could, should and must do more to enhance the visual arts in Britain’s second city.
“There’s something really good about the city which doesn’t feel insular in any way. There are so many people coming through and, without much encouragement from the local authority, we are moving ahead with things like Eastside.
“I also feel those of us here are enjoying a secret the rest of the world isn’t aware of – the city doesn’t get as much good press as it should.
“It’s not a destination for tourists in the way that Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dublin are.
“It needs more social spaces – what we have at the moment isn’t enough.
“That doesn’t mean I don’t like Birmingham, but I would be like Polyanna not to acknowledge that.
“The city centre could be more inviting, and not just for shopping.
“I’m sad we are losing the old Central Library. They could have done something with that building – it’s an interesting space when you clear out the clutter.”
* Brindleyplace: A Changing Landscape
Thursday, 5.30–6.30pm – FREE
Ikon marks this anniversary with a special event. Speakers include historian and Birmingham Post columnist Dr Chris Upton and Gary Taylor, executive director of Altitude Real Estate. Places are free but should be reserved by calling Ikon on 0121 248 0708.
* Walking Tour of Brindleyplace
Saturday, 12–1pm – FREE
There will be an informal walk exploring Brindleyplace and the surrounding area led by Dr Chris Upton. He will look at the social history of the site and its contemporary focus on business and leisure while also uncovering hidden treats. Places are free but should be reserved by calling Ikon on 0121 248 0708.