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How the Ikon is flying the flag for galleries outside of the capital

Nestled deep in the heart of Birmingham, beyond the bustling weekend shoppers of the famed Bullring and a stone’s throw away from the iconic New Street, a modern art revolution is taking place.

In a comparatively small yet impressive red-brick building sits the Ikon gallery. Opened in 1964, the gallery has dedicated the past 50 years to bringing cutting edge of art to the second city, representing both the culture of modern Birmingham and of modern Britain as a whole.

Ikon is not the most obvious choice for the name of an art gallery, but the simplicity of the title is evocative of the straight to the point nature of many of the art on show. Quoted on the gallery’s website, Robert Groves explains: “I was particularly interested in Russian or Greek – eastern orthodox – icons, and thought well ‘Ikon’ is a lovely word. It means image and you get a four letter word that divides beautifully geometrically and was splendid in all directions.” Even through its written title, the Ikon maintains a commitment to the highest form of contemporary art.

The Ikon is of course not the second city’s only art gallery, having to compete for plaudits with the much larger Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in Victoria Square (whose current I Want! I Want: Art and Technology exhibition is really worth a visit). What Ikon has over the bigger museum, though, is its commitment to contemporary art and the rolling nature of its exhibits. Although the museum contains a fantastic selection, it is heavily weighted towards older art and tends to maintain the same key exhibitions year-round, discouraging multiple visits per calendar year. Of course the galleries both add merit to the city centre and can exist in harmony, but the Ikon is certainly the top location for cutting edge art and ideas.

Take, for instance, Oliver Beer’s most recent exhibition, which ran from March 15 – June 4. As an artist, Beer is interested in the ways that sound can be used to make art, blending film, sculpture and sound in a sensory, multidisciplinary approach. During its three-month stay, Beer’s work made the Ikon’s top floor its home, though the most piece found itself located in a room of its own; visitors were encouraged to put on headphones and listen to a cacophony of voices swirl around the phrase ‘pay and display, except on Sunday’ over images of an urban car park. Making the mundane musical.

The Ikon places its work in the heart of the city, both physically and through its involvement with Birmingham’s people. This was clear from my recent visit, where I found myself confused by a room on the first floor, which appeared to be dedicated to the drawings of children. My confusion was quelled after making it up the stairs to Beer’s exhibit, where to my amazement the drawings had been weaved together in animated form to create a scene from Disney’s The Jungle Book, with members of the public drawing the iconic shapes of Baloo and Mowgli. It is refreshing to see the Ikon encouraging a love of contemporary art in children, as the revolutionary and combative nature of some areas of modern art can bring about themes which exclude the youth and turn them away from the fantastic art being created around them.

This commitment to the city of Birmingham is continued through the food on offer to gallery attendees, as the Ikon has teamed up with Birmingham’s famed café connoisseurs Yorks, who provide the perfect combination of artisan coffee and forward-thinking culinary delights (a high-street chain, this is not).

With free entry year round and a continuously revolving door of exhibitions, the Ikon gallery is somewhere to visit only once. Once a month that is. Once you step inside the gorgeous red brick walls of the building you will fall in love with the cutting-edge exhibits, the quirky treats on offer in the well curated gift shop and be amazed by the most interesting lift in all of the midlands (to reveal why this is the case would be to ruin the surprise).

The Tate Modern and V&A may catch the eyes of most of the country, but the Ikon is here to remind us that art and artists do exist outside of the capital – and we’re better for it.

Get Volume #19 here.

Words by Phil Jones

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