For 200 years, the RBSA has been supporting Birmingham’s emerging artists. David Johns takes a look at our city through their eyes
Nestling in a corner of leafy St Paul’s Square on the edge of the Jewellery Quarter is one of Birmingham’s true artistic gems – an organisation which has been at the heart of the city’s creative culture for 200 years. The Royal Birmingham Society of Artists (RBSA) has been, and continues to be, home to some of Brum’s greatest and most famous artists, spanning creative disciplines across a spectrum of mediums from paint to ceramics and jewellery. And this year it is celebrating its bicentenary. Behind the neat façade of the RBSA gallery lies a charitable group founded to develop emerging local talent while at the same time bringing art and the community closer together. The bricks and mortar of the gallery house works from the current generation of local artists, including a delightful crafts and jewellery studio with designer-made pieces for sale at distinctly non-designer prices. A fitting feature given the proximity of the gallery to the creative hustle and bustle of the Jewellery Quarter.
But the RBSA is equally about what you can’t see. It’s more than a great painting hanging on the wall or a beautiful piece of sculpture or ceramics. Throughout its history it has been a creative bridge between its members and the city at large. It continues this important role with a busy schedule of free educational workshops and demonstrations given by its artists. The RBSA, then known as the Birmingham Academy of Arts, was formed by a group of prominent artists in 1814. It became Birmingham Society of Artists seven years later before being granted Royal status in 1868 by Queen Victoria. Over the following two centuries it has inspired and developed some of the city’s greatest artists. The society moved to its current home in 2000 and has seen visitor numbers increase by a quarter as a result. Gallery director Marie Considine said: “We are Birmingham’s oldest artist-led visual charity, and one of the oldest art societies in the UK. Our aim remains to encourage enjoyment of the visual arts, whether through visiting exhibitions, collecting or developing skills. Our bicentenary presents us with a marvellous opportunity to make even more people in the city aware of the RBSA and what we do.” When you’re 200 years old you can be forgiven for planning something a little special to mark your birthday.
The bicentenary celebrations are split into three areas – past, present and future – and the RBSA has put together an exciting programme of exhibitions and events under the banner ‘Celebrating 200 Years of Art, Artists and Audiences in Birmingham’. The first, entitled Birmingham Today, saw artists competing for a £2,000 cash prize for the best interpretation of the city in 2014. In May, the Next Wave exhibition will show work from the upcoming generation of local artists. And later in the year, A Place for Art will explore the history and development of the RBSA. Liberally sprinkled between the major shows are a host of other events, workshops and exhibitions.
RBSA president Robert Neil – a professional artist who by day runs his own building merchants business in the Jewellery Quarter, said: “The aim of any organisation such as ours is to interact with more and more people. We already deliver an exciting range of exhibitions, events and workshops across the year, but 2014 promises to bring something even more special. “We are one of very few societies outside London with a profile which allows us to work very closely with the community. Unlike most we don’t show art in hired space. We own our own gallery and as such are very much a working and community-involved society all-year-round. This gives us a huge advantage.” Marie Considine added: “The RBSA does not benefit from regular financial support for national or local government. We have to raise £100,000 every year to keep going, and that makes us think creatively in everything we do. Our 200-year celebrations will be a fantastic springboard for more people than ever to get to know us and appreciate what a very special thing the city has here in the RBSA.”
RBSA FACTFILE: The RBSA is an artist-led charity which exhibits more than 2,000 works by local artists each year. It runs a range of programmes for schools and other groups, aiming in particular to support disadvantaged children in the local area. The gallery is open throughout the year and admission is free. Many of the exhibits can be bought for less than £200.