The Midlands Art Centre has been influencing the lives of young Brummies for over 50 years – not least that of leading actor Adrian Lester…
One of Birmingham’s most important cultural centres, the Midlands Arts Centre has gone through many changes – not least the demolition of a fence that transformed the face of the organisation forever! In the year that Brian Epstein signed The Beatles, the Midlands Arts Centre for Young People as it was called then, opened its doors for the first time under the leadership of John English and began working towards its mission of arts for everyone. For more than half a century this mantra has produced some stunning results and changed the trajectory of many young lives. One such life that was shaped at MAC was that of a young skateboarding named Adrian Lester. Now a huge star of stage, film and TV, he told us: “It’s because of that building I do what I do. It introduced me to all forms of art and allowed me to just turn up and absorb it.” As it did his wife and award-winning playwright Lolita Chakrabati and famously Tony Robinson cut his teeth directing at MAC in the Sixties.
We could go on, but Lester hit the nail on the head: The point of the place is to enrich the lives of Brummies and beyond through its deep and diverse mix of exhibitions, performances and workshops in a space that genuinely looks to embrace all. One figure responsible for the success of the organisation over the last two decades is Dorothy Wilson who has made significant changes since her appointment as chief executive and artistic director. She explains: “In 1990 there was work to be done. The organisation was at a stage where it needed significant refreshment largely due to lack of resources nationally. The building needed a lot because it was well-loved and therefore well-used.” Thanks to Dorothy’s drive and commitment major work to redevelop the site eventually began in 2008 resulting in the multi-purpose, contemporary space today. One of Dorothy’s simplest yet most effective changes was to take down the old fence that used to separate MAC from the rest of Cannon Hill Park. It had a startling effect on the number of visitors and the vibe of the place.
Dorothy said: “People saw that fence and thought ‘it’s not for me’. Once the barrier came down, people wandered in. The door was open.” Families were able to experience performances and small scale children’s theatre, potter’s wheels and puppet shows and from that first exchange people realised it was for them and came back again and again. The challenge was also to reflect the diversity of Birmingham and its migrant past. Dorothy said: “Second, third and fourth generation South Asians, African and Eastern European – we aimed to bring those communities together and through programmes and projects we found a voice. Multiple voices actually. A new vocabulary to reflect the new Birmingham.” This enrichment is central to the ethos of MAC. The projects that worked across cultures had spectacular results and made sense. There have been many highlights during Dorothy’s 25 years at MAC, but the one that stands out is The Playmakers project that launched the organisation’s 50th year celebrations in 2012. It commissioned a family of Japanese artists, Kosuge1-16 to create an artwork representative of MAC and activated by its audience. Dorothy explained: “It was a sort of look back at MAC. The artists created a series of puppets and scaled down versions of buildings in the park that could be manipulated by the public. It was hugely interactive and represented what the organisation is about beautifully.”
MAC has to flourish financially as well as culturally and with many projects and performances either free of charge or costing a small fee, this has been tricky at times, but the organisation has largely bucked the trend, managing to thrive through the recession. “We use every bit of the building. As well as an income from the shop we also hire out rooms to businesses and theatres extending the building even further,” explained Dorothy. The organisation is also part funded by Birmingham City Council which has been on board since the days of John English and the Arts Council. There are three strands to the organisation’s future goals – artistic, social and economic. Artistic being to support and grow the next generation of artists; social being to ensure that community arts are for everybody in their own community and economic being to increase income through donations, trusts and foundations. The idea that MAC reaches people who wouldn’t naturally engage with the arts because of where they live is at the core of everything the organisation does. Half-a-million visitors a year is a great endorsement that this ethos is working brilliantly.