With 2008 drawing to a close, Terry Grimley looks back at the artistic highlights.
Andrew Franklin was a civil servant who worked in the Foreign Service from 1937 to 1974 and it was Birmingham’s good fortune that his daughter chose to study at Birmingham University.
For Mr Franklin’s great passion was Chinese ceramics and other forms of applied art, and his visits to Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery persuaded him that it would be a suitable eventual home for the exceptional collection he built up over many years.
When 70 items went on display early in 2008, it was just the first taste of one of the most important bequests the city has received for many years, totalling nearly 700 items spanning 2000 years.
This was the first of a number of exhibitions and other events celebrating Chinese culture in the year of the Beijing Olympics, although the other one in Birmingham, Beijing Map Games – responses from a variety of international artists and architects to rapid change in the Chinese capital – seemed more exciting in prospect than it did in reality.
Another important collection of Chinese art in the West Midlands, the bronzes at Compton Verney – received designated status as being of national importance during the year.
Margaret Lemon as Erminia, a full-sized replica of a portrait which hangs in Blenheim Palace, was one of the highlights of Behind Closed Doors, a pioneering exhibition which opened at the Barber Institute in January and gave a glimpse into the world of private art collecting in Birmingham.
Other little gems which came to light in this exhibition included paintings by Boudin and the chronicler of the early 20th century Black Country, Edward Butler Bayliss, who then seemed to crop up throughout the year, most comprehensively in a display now showing at Wolverhampton Art Gallery.
Also at Wolverhampton Art Gallery was Passage to the Future, an interesting survey of recent Japanese art, including the hilarious work of artists’ cooperative Maywa Denki. This group straightfacedly mimics corporate Japan, referring to itself as a company, with lead artist Nobumichi Tosa as its president and dressing in identical blue overalls.
However, the products it designs and makes, while not necessarily useless, are certainly eccentric. All of them are inspired by fish, so that you have, for example, a crossbow in the form of a fish’s skeleton and a mechanised fish-shaped stack of glasses for doing the wet finger on a wine glass trick.
In April the School of Jewellery played host to Schmuck 2008, the world’s largest open exhibition of contemporary jewellery. While it contained items in precious metal, it also challenged conventional notions of jewellery with pieces made of cardboard, pigskin, noodles, thorns, screwed-up paper and nylon stockings.
The mac, usually one of the liveliest presences on the West Midlands visual arts scene, closed in April for its major redevelopment. It will eventually reopen late next year with a completely new gallery.
The Public, West Bromwich’s troubled new media arts centre, never quite managed to open properly during the year, but The Herbert, Coventry’s museum and art gallery, made an impressive return.
With a fine new extension and refurbished galleries, it opened its doors in June with a centenary exhibition celebrating the work of Sir Basil Spence, the architect of Coventry Cathedral. Later in the year this gallery hosted Something That I’ll Never Really See, a survey from the Victoria & Albert Museum of recent photography, showing how the work of fine artists is rubbing shoulders with that of documentary and fashion photographers.
The Conservative Party conference prompted another significant photography exhibition. Knight of the Camera was a portable outdoor exhibition which belatedly paid tribute to Birmingham’s Victorian photography pioneer, the Tory MP Sir Benjamin Stone, and showed how the outdoor gallery could have a useful future even after the new Library of Birmingham has opened in Centenary Square.
Ikon Gallery’s programme during the year included the largest show yet devoted to Turner Prize winner Martin Creed, who was in the news for a piece involving runners sprinting through Tate Britain in which Lord Coe took a turn. The inclusion of his Sex and Sick videos gave it a controversial edge, but for me it was less memorable than Australian artist Tim Maguire’s unexpectedly ravishing paintings and prints back in February.
At the New Art Gallery, Walsall, the best was saved for last with the invigorating exhibition Outsiders, including Irish artist Conor Harrington’s spectacular mural, which will last only until the exhibition closes on January 25.
The Stourbridge International Festival of Glass returned in August full of interest and ambition. The wide range of work selected for the British Glass Biennale showed that this is a medium currently packed with ideas and innovation, while the related exhibition at Bilston Craft Gallery, Glass Routes, showed the international influence of Wolverhampton University’s glass course, linking up again with the Chinese theme through the postgraduate students who have exported Black Country expertise to new university courses in China.
Towards the end of the year the exhibition Art of Birmingham 1940-2008, presented by Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery in association with Birmingham City University, suggested that much of what has been produced here in recent decades lacks nothing compared to art produced anywhere else, except hype.
Finally, a little further afield, 2008 saw the addition of a major new applied art attraction for the West Midlands when Wedgwood opened a new museum on its Barlaston estate.