by Matt Price
For anyone with an interest in the visual arts and crafts, the West Midlands has much to offer. In addition to the high profile museums, galleries, festivals and events, there is also a great deal happening with artists running studio spaces, organising exhibitions, talks and wider programmes of activity, as well as supporting each other through peer networks.
Artist-led Spaces and Exhibition Venues
The richness and diversity of the visual arts throughout the West Midlands is greatly enhanced by a rising number of artist-led organisations. These include Eastside Projects, the Lombard Method and Grand Union in Birmingham, as well as Coventry Art Space, Eagle Works Studios in Wolverhampton, Airspace in Stoke-on-Trent, and the Visual Artists Network (VAN) in Shrewsbury. Many venues offer exhibition programmes of lively contemporary solo and group shows.
Galleries such as Ikon, with its international reputation for showing contemporary art are matched by contemporary programmes at venues such as Walsall, Wolverhampton and the Mead Gallery. Venues such as MAC Birmingham provide consistent support to local, regional, national and international artists with their varied programmes.
A rich seam of historic collections can be found in the museums across the region, providing free access to amazing works of art from the Pre-Raphaelites to Pop Art. These include Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, The Barber Institute in Birmingham, The New Art Gallery Walsall, Wolverhampton Art Gallery, The Mead Gallery at the University of Warwick, The Herbert in Coventry, The Potteries Museum in Stoke, The Royal Pump Rooms in Leamington Spa, Rugby Art Gallery and Museum and Worcester Museum & Art Gallery.
Most museums and galleries offer a wide range of talks, workshops, events and networking opportunities as well as schools, Higher Education and family friendly programmes. As well as providing opportunities for the wider public, these programmes offer valuable professional opportunities for artists and other creative practitioners.
Collections are developing all the time and many of the region’s galleries maintain active collecting policies, despite difficult times. One of the most exciting developing collections involves a consortium of Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, The New Art Gallery Walsall and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, supported by Art Fund International. Over a five year period, £1million is being spent on international contemporary art, substantially boosting the resources available in the region for generations to come. Artists collected so far include Mohamed Bourouissa, Jitish Kallat, Dayanta Singh and Zhang Enli.
Collecting is not confined to nationally and internationally renowned artists. Many local and regional artists can also be found in regional collections.
Looking to the future, exciting developments are Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery’s new development at Rowley’s House opening in 2012 and Ikon Gallery’s on-going plans to establish a Museum for Contemporary Art in Birmingham.
The West Midlands boasts a wide range of festivals, including Fierce, an international festival of live art, the Hereford Photography Festival, Brilliantly Birmingham, which promotes the work of designer-makers from the region, and The Event, a bi-annual artist-led celebration, which takes place in Digbeth, Birmingham. The Hay Festival of Literature has become one of the most celebrated festivals in the UK. The Flatpack Festival is a must for film and video aficionados and Capsule’s Supersonic festival presents a range of avant-garde and experimental sound. Some might say that it is this diversity of art forms that characterises the region, epitomised by Birmingham’s annual Artsfest, the UK’s biggest free annual arts festival which celebrates the region’s cultural landscape through the visual arts, theatre, music and dance.
The West Midlands is also home to a number of leading national agencies, offering specialist support. IXIA, the think tank for public art, provides guidance on art in the public realm, and Craftspace develops opportunities for designer-makers. Rhubarb Rhubarb is an internationally renowned development agency for photographers, Vivid provides support to artists working with new media and Friction Arts works with communities to develop innovative projects. Many local authorities support artists working in the community and some also offer training and development programmes. The New Art Gallery Walsall, the Mead Gallery and the Lombard Method run residency programmes, in Walsall’s case, for artists based in the West Midlands. The Lombard Method host international residencies and support recent graduates.
Professional development training and opportunities are provided by a range of organisations including Creative Alliance, Eastside Projects’ Extra Special People, Rhubarb Rhubarb, and the Lombard Method. An array of opportunities for training, mentoring, advice and guidance can be found on the TPWM website and through its e- bulletin `News and Opportunities' for artists.
While there are some commercial galleries such as Number 9 The Gallery in Birmingham’s Brindley Place and the Galanthus Gallery in Hereford, the number of galleries selling work is low in relation to the quality and level of work being created in the region. Initiatives are in place to realise increased market potential – such as the Arts Council’s Own Art scheme, the formation of The Collective and the Art of Ideas, a curated selling exhibition led by Arts & Business and hosted by Matthew Collings in 2010, and Visual, a contemporary art service for business and business people comprising sales, loans and art commissions. Organisations such as Ikon, Grand Union and Eastside Projects also produce limited editions that relate to their exhibitions programmes. Of course, artists from the region are represented by galleries outside such as Juneau Projects at the Ceri Hand Gallery in Liverpool. Encouraging more people to collect art and to engage with the art markets regionally, nationally and internationally is an important part of creating a sustainable arts ecology in the region.
The Art Schools
The Art Schools in the region are essential to that ecology. The region offers world class arts facilities and teaching across its art schools and universities including The Art School at Birmingham City University, Hereford Art College, and Coventry, Staffordshire, Worcester, and Wolverhampton Universities. There are high profile art exhibitions of national and international interest at the Mead Gallery, University of Warwick, and The International Project Space at Bournville, run by Birmingham City University. The BA and MA final shows, meanwhile, offer a valuable opportunity to see new work and witness emerging talent.
Turning Point West Midlands
The Turning Point Network in England works to provide support through advice, information and programmes for graduating artists and to help ease the challenging transition from student to professional artist. As part of this strategy, links are being cemented between the art schools and art establishments such as galleries, museums, studios and support networks.
Turning Point, established in 2006, is the Arts Council’s ten-year strategy that aims to strengthen the visual arts in England. Turning Point West Midlands (TPWM) is part of the national Turning Point Network which was set up to deliver a shared vision for growth in the sector. Through the TPWM steering group and working group, and through consultation with the wider sector, a visual arts strategy is currently being developed for the West Midlands. TPWM is working in partnership with museums and galleries, local authorities, curators, artists groups and the higher education sector as well as national agencies such as a-n, Artquest, the Contemporary Art Society and many others to develop and implement this vision of collaborative working and sector-wide support.