Art historian, author and TV and radio commentator Ruth Millington talks book deals, Brum’s cultural landscape and becoming a muse herself
Ruth Millington was advised by everyone except her art teacher not to study art as it wasn’t a ‘proper subject’, that she was a bright girl and if she wanted to go to a decent university and have good career prospects she should shun art as an A-Level.
Ruth did take art A-Level in her own time alongside her other subjects which must have been a tremendous feat and she then went on to study art history at Oxford. She says: “There was so much negativity and even later when I was working in a gallery, my dad told me it wasn’t a proper career.”
Now a published author, working at Sotheby’s Institute of Art with TV and radio appearances under her belt, Ruth is happy with what is most definitely her proper career. The publishing world is still fairly new – Muse launched in May. Since then, TIME magazine has featured excerpts, Ruth has instructed an agent, she’s been on primetime TV and radio multiple times, is writing a proposal for a new book and has a children’s book in the pipeline.
Ruth initially wanted to write a book about Birmingham’s art story through the ages from Pre-Raphaelite to today. She explains: “In 2019, I pitched the idea to 40 agents and 50 publishers. A small local history publisher said yes, but when Covid hit, they put all their staff on furlough and announced they wouldn’t be publishing it. It was really disappointing, but I’m glad of it now.” The disappointment sent Ruth in a different direction.
A friend suggested thinking of an idea for a broader audience and the concept of a book focusing on muses as real people rather than passive beings began to take shape. Ruth says: “Muses have been written about lots before but not in a celebratory way. I wrote a proposal which took nine months and signed a deal with Penguin Randomhouse. They asked me to write the book in six months! That wasn’t possible as I had a job, but I managed it in a year.” Ruth explains that she tends not to use the term muse because of its passivity preferring art legend.
Ruth says the last two months of writing were hard, particularly the Frida Kahlo section which was the last one she finished. “I think it was because there was so much written about her. I had to find a new angle.” Ruth examined Frida’s diaries and paintings and the way the artist constructed herself. “She was almost managing her image. The diary was like an outpouring of emotion while her paintings were very controlled.” As the launch of Muse got closer Ruth found it stressful. “It was anxiety-inducing. I’d spend a long time researching their worlds and just worried about what people would make of it.” Thankfully the reception has been positive and Muse is selling well.
When local artist and friend Danny Howes approached Ruth to be his muse, she jumped at the chance and is absolutely thrilled with the result (pictured). “He came to my flat and took a bunch of photos. It tells my writing journey really. I believed in him and he believed in me. He asked me which books I wanted in the background and Danny added Muse of his own accord. I’m an introvert and I think he captured that. He knows me well.”
TV work wasn’t a natural leap for Ruth the introvert and at the first time of asking, she immediately turned down BBC Breakfast. Ruth had written a small book on artist Eric Tucker dubbed Warrington’s Lowry and they wanted to chat to her about him. “I said ‘no way’. I didn’t want to go on TV but I spoke to the artist’s nephew about it. He said he’d do it and encouraged me. I called the BBC back and did the interview.” She says it was terrifying but Naga and Charlie were brilliant and it opened so many doors. ITV got in touch on the back of it and Ruth did a piece on Cold War Steve plus she’s now listed as an official BBC contributor, has been on Radio 4, Woman’s Hour and many more.
One of Ruth’s big irritations is the lack of funding for arts. “Arts are just not rated at all. The Government has cut funding for art education at university. With the progress of AI a lot of jobs will be automated but not creative industries, so surely we need more creativity not less.” She adds: “It’s so obvious that the arts are good for people that the NHS is prescribing arts for people with anxiety.” Part of Ruth’s role at Sotheby’s and previously at the University of Birmingham is to organise paid internships for art students. “Unpaid internships are only possible for the privileged and that’s not right. That’s so obvious to me.” The situation is changing only thanks to people like Ruth striving for change.
FULL OF PRIDE
Brum is thriving culturally in Ruth’s opinion. “When I moved to Birmingham from London people asked me ‘why are you moving to Birmingham?’ They are always amazed when they come here which I like.” Ruth’s arts highlights in the city include BMAG’s redesigned realms room, Ironhouse gallery and events space, Digbeth’s artist spaces, excellent programming at IKON including more local artists and the most impactful arts event recently, the launch of the Commonwealth Games Festival, Wondrous Stories.
She says: “The atmosphere was electric. It was so heart-warming. The Commonwealth Games and the Festival might look great outwardly, but I felt that on a local level that event brought people together and filled them with pride. That’s what I saw.”