A major new exhibition in Birmingham is set to give a snapshot into city life. Graham Young reports.

The title has been deliberately extended to Metropolis: Reflections on the Modern City – to avoid any confusion with the revered Fritz Lang movie, Metropolis.

That a Danish film from 1927 can still cast such a long shadow over contemporary art is perhaps testimony to the old phrase ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’.

In an era when major city populations are rising around the world, Reflections will open in the Gas Hall, at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery on Saturday and run until June 23.

But it’s not just a temporary exhibition which visitors can see for free.

It’s also a permanent collection, too.

In 2007, five centres around the country were each awarded £1 million from the Art Fund International Prize.

The money has enabled Birmingham Museums and the New Art Gallery, Walsall, to spend five years jointly searching for and then buying the works now going on display.

The collection will be on show in its entirety for the next three months, before going into selected displays, storage and/or other exhibitions.

After successfully nominating the two museums for the prize, Ikon Gallery director Jonathan Watkins is delighted for them.

“We are so generous,” he laughs. “And not expecting anything back. But we are also commending Birmingham – and Walsall – to the rest of the world and are interested in a future that we can all benefit from.”

One of the indirect beneficiaries of the prize is Lisa Beauchamp, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

Having only taken up her post last August, she arrived too late to claim any credit for landing the £1 million prize.

One piece in the collection, though, is her choice. Bizarrely, it’s a piece about city life from an artist born in the Faroe Islands – which is about as far removed from a metropolis as you can get on our increasingly crowded planet.

“Hanni Bjartalid lives in Helsinki,” Lisa explains with a broad grin.

“But we’ve also got works from artists as far afield as the US, China, Russia and Germany and a mixture of paintings, sculptures, films and projections.”

And here’s another big selling point.

“Quite a few of the artists are not in any other British collection, so we are bringing new artists into an important collection,” she says.

“One of the West African works shows how three-year-old phones can be redundant.

“Ola Kolehmainen’s photograph of the shadow of St Martin’s Church on the outside of Selfridges shows how a mixture of past and present architecture defines Birmingham as a city.

“Christiane Baumgartner’s diptych of the canal system in Ladywood is an abstract view of our industrial heritage.

“The canals were important in the Victorian age, now it’s all about trains.”

“Grazia Toderi’s double video projection Orbit Rosse offer images of the city at night, with red, glowing lights – beautiful but horrific at the same time.

“The nice thing about The Art Fund is that the money comes from philanthropic giving.

“But who knows if we’ll ever get this amount of money again.” Lisa’s job has been to tie all of the pieces together so that visitors can go on an international journey in the Gas Hall.

“I am leading the curatorial aspects of the show and I am its writer, creative a narrative as you come in about rhythms and how we see ‘the city’ from afar.”

Lisa studied the history of modern at the University of Manchester before taking a masters degree in art history. Her first job was at the National Portrait Gallery and she came to Birmingham via Museums Sheffield.

“In between Government Revealed leaving the Gas Hall and Metropolis arriving we’ve had just three weeks to get everything finished,” she says. “Everyone just has to pitch in and then you all get it done together.”

Stephen Snoddy, director of The New Art Gallery in Walsall, adds: “We had an interim exhibition of works at the halfway point of the five-year period and it was very successful.

“It was always agreed between both of us that Birmingham would have the exhibition at the major end and it suits our partnership to do it this way.

“After it has finished, we might have a mini solo exhibition, such as featuring 16 photographs by the Indian artist Dayanita Singh.

“Many of the pieces are very ambitious, large-scale works. We will store a certain number of works, but any future loan arrangements would be very simple.”

Helped by it’s year-long Damien Hurst exhibition, The New Art Gallery is set for a near-record year in terms of visitor numbers.

Stephen says attendances in the 12 months to March 31 “could tip 200,000 and attendances for this calendar year are almost certain to tip 200,000”.

Worldwide Vision

Metropolis offers some 76 visions of modern cities and urban life from 26 leading international artists, including Miao Xiaochun, Zhang Enli, Grazia Toderi and Beat Streuli.

One of the collection’s themes is the rhythm of cities and the human interactions within. Miao Xiaochun’s monumental photographic work Orbit depicts a moving landscape in Beijing where vehicles and pedestrians are captured side by side moving at different speeds.

In contrast, Dayanita Singh’s Dream Villa series is a more atmospheric view of modern India. Infused with light and colour, the photographs suggest that even the most ordinary urban environment can have an enigmatic character.

Birmingham is also a subject for some of the artists. Christiane Baumgartner uses video and woodcut to create the diptych Ladywood, inspired by reflections of a railway bridge onto the canal. Beat Streuli’s video Pallasades follows the crowds walking up and down the ramp to the shopping centre on one day in 2001, repetition and diversity in one place.

Ola Kolehmainen’s Shadow of Church shows how St Martin’s imposes itself on the famous exterior of Selfridges in the Bullring.

Other featured artists include Aleksandra Mir, Nicholas Provost, Matias Faldbakken, Barry McGee, Yang Zhenzhong, Cao Fei, Romauld Hazoumè, Josef Robakowski and Rashid Rana.