Ikon Gallery is one of the country’s leading homes of contemporary art – and this month it celebrates a very special landmark
April is a big month for Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery. It is celebrating 50 years of artistic excellence and has a fantastic programme of events, exhibitions and experiences collectively known as Ikon 50 to mark the occasion. As the city’s only dedicated gallery of contemporary art, Ikon has a unique role and responsibility in the Birmingham cultural landscape and has been the catalyst in the development of many important artistic careers. Ikon was established in the Swinging Sixties by a group of artists wanting a new and accessible place to share their artistic ideas and dreams. Its first home was in a glass-sided kiosk in the Bullring before enjoying a succession of venues around the city, including the Pallasades shopping centre where it was bombed by the IRA as part of an attack on an army recruitment centre next door. It moved to its current Brindleyplace base in 1998 after converting the former Victorian school into a striking contemporary gallery space.
The wonderfully intimate gallery, and the charming café linked to it, have become a real magnet to art lovers in the city and beyond, attracting more than 130,000 visitors a year. And as is the case with so many of the groups and organisations who we feature in Birmingham’s Greatest, Ikon has an even bigger reach and audience thanks to its dedicated work out in the community with young and would-be artists. Its youth interaction is perfectly captured by the Slow Boat project which sees members of the Ikon Youth Programme crew a 72-foot narrow boat converted into a floating studio and exhibition and theatrical space. The youngsters enjoy day and weekend trips, plus longer voyages away from Birmingham along the many canals that link the city to the rest of the country. “The project has proved a big success,” said Ikon’s director Jonathan Watkins. “You don’t have to be a member of the youth programme to be part of it – just come along and have fun. It’s very much in the all-inclusive spirit of Ikon.” The gallery’s 50th anniversary is about celebrating with the community as a whole. “Ikon has grown from humble beginnings to develop a worldwide reputation,” said Jonathan. “In recent years exhibiting artists have come from China, Japan, Australia, France, the US, Russia, Canada and of course the UK.”
Among the leading homegrown Birmingham talents are John Salt, John Myers, Ruth Claxton, Stuart Whipps and Hurvin Anderson. “Originally when Ikon started it was thought it would be a touring collection and have no home of its own,” said Jonathan. “That changed with the first small venue in the Bullring. Artistic ability and accessibility was key to Ikon then, and 50 years later it remains the same. We are a flagship for contemporary art both locally and in the wider country as a whole. Indeed globally, too.” At the local level, Ikon expends a lot of effort to involve those who do not come from a professional art background or indeed have any real knowledge of art. “We regularly visit schools and they come to us also,” said Jonathan. “It is important to encourage children not to be alienated or intimidated by a traditional art gallery environment. We are not dealing in exclusive luxury goods here. Art is for everyone to enjoy and be part of.” One of the highlights of the gallery’s birthday celebrations is Artists for Ikon, an exhibition at the gallery from 24 April to 5 May followed by a major contemporary art auction at Sotheby’s in London on 7 July. The exhibition previews works donated for the auction by some of today’s most important artists, all of whom have exhibited at some time at the gallery. Money raised by the auction will form the foundation of Ikon’s 50th Anniversary Endowment Fund dedicated to the gallery’s artistic programme and the commissioning of new art work.
In common with many of the city’s other centres of culture, Ikon is a registered charity, and the anniversary will give it the opportunity to undertake its largest-ever fund-raising campaign. “The aim is a simple one – to ensure that Ikon continues to grow, making the very best in contemporary art available to all,” said Jonathan. “Funding for everyone in the arts is harder now than it has ever been due to the cuts in public funding. It means a redoubling of the effort to get funding from elsewhere and for making the case that art in Birmingham is a good investment. Without art this city wouldn’t be as cosmopolitan. Investment in culture reaps such huge rewards – it makes the city alive and attractive.” Fifty years on, Ikon is playing a more important role in Birmingham life than ever – so join us in wishing this remarkable hub of contemporary art a truly great year.