THE COOLEST PLACE YOU'VE (PROBABLY) NEVER HEARD OF
The first time I visited The Birmingham Contemporary Art Gallery I was wearing a suit jacket, shirt and trousers. On my second visit I was in shorts and a t-shirt. The wardrobe switch was a direct result of this being, without a doubt in my mind, the most relaxed art gallery I've ever been in. Hell, it's more relaxing than most pubs. "We want this to be a therapeutic space for visitors," says co-owner Albert Wallace, who has a voice that's calmer than Boy George's chameleon. Therapeutic? Absolutely. I could sit here for hours. "Some people do," says Albert's business partner and wife, Sarah.
It's incredible and yet, not at all incredible, how few people know about the gallery. It was launched just before the pandemic struck, hindering maximum awareness, but in Hollywood terms the cloud-like venue could be described as a 'sleeper hit', its cult following growing and growing. Once you know where it is, it's hard to miss, taking a colossal corner of the Utilita Arena, above Legoland. It certainly is big but part of the charm lies in that much of that square footage travels directly up rather than out, floor to ceiling windows spilling natural light across the gallery. In less than an hour I need to be gone and the couple need to have put up an entirely new exhibition. But you wouldn't know it to chat to them. Nothing in here is in a rush. The visitors moving at exactly the same pace as the barges that trundle along the canal below.
Albert is a Jamaican artist who moved to the UK in 2002, after his work proved a roaring success in the Caribbean. Here, getting his work seen, let alone displayed, proved significantly more difficult, galleries declining his leather-etched art and sculptures — often dismissing it without even taking a glance. "About 30 galleries must have turned me down, back-to-back" he says. "It was a really tough time." Down but not out, Albert continued his art but also sought full time work in his other love — social care — finding himself in Staffordshire, then Dudley, engaging with deprived communities from all walks of life. The more he struggled to have his work shown the more he realised he wasn't alone. Artists of all sorts of backgrounds were battling to have their work seen. "Worse still," he says "some of the most talented just gave up trying, or didn't even start to look."
It was way back in 2007 that Albert started plotting the blueprints for what he calls a "hybrid art gallery". A fusion of different concepts within the same space, no theme necessarily tying one artist's work to the neighbouring pieces. "The space had to be fluid, I knew that much. It had to be able to change and accommodate. And it had to be a welcoming place for people with stress or other mental health problems. A space where they can forget about whatever else is happening outside. And part of achieving that comes from removing the pretentiousness from art."
Easier said than done when you've been surrounded by art your entire adult life, but I can only presume that the Caribbean art world is rather less stuffy than the English. Much more importantly, though, is Sarah. Sarah's background is in recruitment, so she has a knack of helping people out, but she has no art experience, something that proves a huge asset to the gallery. "I can come at this from a completely different point of view," she says. "I have no concept, really, of why art galleries feel the need to be the way they are. So I'm in no danger of falling into those traps. If I feel like it's okay to have a TV in an art gallery, then I'll put a TV in an art gallery. If I think people might use giant sofas, then giant sofas they shall have." When you get to know these two, you get to understand with crystal clarity why BCAG is the way it is. A gloriously refreshing breeze in what can often be a stale environment.
Immediately Albert and Sarah wanted to represent artists from multicultural backgrounds. Not just artists from those walks of life, but a good percentage. "Birmingham, being the enormously diverse area that it is," says Sarah, "with such huge levels of creativity, seemed perfect. Perfect to showcase the regional talent, but also pedestal those that perhaps aren't given the opportunities they deserve."
It's all very well wanting a diverse audience and artist base, but how do you go about getting it? "The minute we walked in here to look at this place..." says Albert, eyes widening as he surveys the gallery as it looks now. "I've never seen him so excited," says Sarah, chiming in. "But when we opened our doors we had one black artist and almost no non-white visitors."
Following the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement the pair set about using Black History Month of 2020 to make their mark. "We wanted to give artists from those backgrounds a space in which they could show their talent but, and this is important," says Albert, "not in their communities — as vital as those spaces are. Somewhere in the centre of the city where they can travel with their families and feel part of something, I don't know... bigger maybe? Something the whole region can get behind." The event they launched, Black Artists For Black History, was inundated with work after a promo video involving Albert's son went viral. Within days 40 artists had confirmed while bands, dancers and singers had been booked to invigorate the exhibition. They've not struggled for artists since.
It's beautiful what they've done with the space. I can't begin to explain whatever levels of witchcraft or, more likely, feng shui, that has been put into it, but gone entirely is that niggling sense of being out of my depth that I feel, and I think many people feel, in almost every other art gallery there is going. They don't sell to you, here, although that is of course their business. They answer your questions if you have any. They leave you be if that's what it looks like you'd prefer. These are skills more closely correlated with the hospitality industry, and they work.
Starting on Friday (July 23 and free to see) is the Ten Collection, a series of ten pieces by legendary Wolverhampton spray paint artist Temper, each showing a famous number ten from the world of International football. Here's a first look at one of them (above) and Wayne Rooney will be joined by Diego Maradona, Zinedine Zidane, Pele, Lothar Matthäus, Michael Laudrup, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Roberto Baggio, Lionel Messi and Ruud Gullit. Roman Abramovich, Saatchi & Saatchi, Coca-Cola and the BBC, are all former clients of the graffiti commander-in-chief.
Also starting tomorrow (from £6 to £10) is Willard Wigan's World of Wonder. Wigan, who grew up in Wolverhampton but now calls Birmingham home, is the man behind the planet's smallest sculptures — twenty-five miniature works, which do things like perilously sit within the eye of a needle. All seen through microscopes, one piece includes the world’s smallest pair of glasses (on a pin head, sculpted from gold and using real glass lenses), while a golden chopper motorcycle is smaller than a human blood cell and so fragile that even the pulse in Willard's finger could have crushed it completely, so he was forced to work in between heartbeats.
Also on display is a piece called Time to Remember the Missing Soldier. It incorporates a microscopic detailed handmade sculpture of a soldier, standing upon the tip of a decommissioned First World War Lee Enfield 303 bullet. The finished soldier is smaller than a full stop in a newspaper. The tip of this bullet is micro hand engraved with a poignant inscription by Willard's co-collaborator Graham Short. A sombre message, indeed, but taken as whole I can't think of a more engaging, immersive and roundly enjoyable display to welcome even those who feel like the most distant of outliers from the art world. And in Sarah and Albert you have the most welcoming of hosts to bring you in.
One of Birmingham's newest (and best) cocktail bars has gone "all in" on an exclusive I Choose Birmingham promo offer — probably the best we've ever run. The Pineapple Club, whose entire ground floor area is a dedicated bottle shop, are now offering a free cocktail in the bar area upstairs for every £15 you spend on bottles or cans downstairs. If you think about it, that's ludicrous value given cocktails cost between £7.50 and £9.50. And the best bit is you can choose when you take your liquid libation, they'll simply hand you a voucher to use (up to one month from the date you made the purchase) when you spend your £15. Spend £30, get two cocktails. Spend £45, get three, but be sure to mention this offer before you buy. The shop itself, situated in the Great Western Arcade, is now better stocked than ever before with craft beers being a core raison d'etre. The giant fridge currently houses 25 breweries worth of beer including big names like Polly's, Pomona Island, Brew York, Neonraptor and Amundsen plus local breweries like Glasshouse, Attic, Trinity and Dig Brew. If beer's not your bag, The Pineapple Club have Black Country made Dr Eamers' gin and Tapatio Reposado tequila for £30, meaning one bottle of either will get you two cocktails. Beluga Vodka and Slingsby gin are also north of £30. Their wine options are newly provided by highly thought of and family-run Solihull wine merchant, Frazier's, so the vino options are suddenly superb and all your Laurent Perrier bubbly needs are catered for. Essentially, if you know anybody that's in need of a gift, this offer should be right up your strasse. Mention the deal when in the shop, promotion ends September 30, 2021 but if you buy your bottles towards the end of September you'll still have a month to claim your drinks. T&C apply
The remarkable Birmingham Opera Company will perform Wagner's RhineGold as planned, now going ahead in tribute to Sir Graham Vick, Artistic Director of BOC, who died this week of complications from Covid-19 at the age of 67. Sir Graham had been in hospital since June after testing positive in advance of RhineGold rehearsals which he undertook online from home. The Company, which he created in 2000 from the fledgling City of Birmingham Touring Opera has become a world leader in bringing opera to new audiences and attracted attention globally for its ground-breaking shows staged in the city's derelict factories, big top tents at Aston Hall and Cannon Hill Park, the old Silver Blades ice rink and the former TSB bank on Broad Street. RhineGold, for which tickets are still available, will take place in Symphony Hall on July 31 and August 2, priced at £12.50 and £19.99 with concessions. Sir Graham's work has always been pegged to present day circumstances so you're to expect the unexpected. The masked construction worker in the image, behind Musical Director Alpesh Chauhan, is a cast member for example. How and why that works will be revealed in the show which will be performed in its English translation, with the full musical forces of 82 players from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Tickets
NEW DIGBETH BREWERY
Brum Brewery Halton Turner have left their Hall Green home of three years and joined the rise (and rise) of the Digbeth day and night scene. Shifting their entire brewery from one that fitted into a shipping container, they now have enough space for a fully working taproom plus kitchen. Former brewery hobbyists Giles Halton and Chris Turner got very good at making quite average beer, their first attempt Tropical Death being a particular low. But their hunger to run a brewery wouldn't die, the pair choosing instead to bring in brewer, Dan Rybinski, from Sutton Coldfield's Brewhouse & Kitchen. "Unsurprisingly" says Giles "the beers suddenly got rather a lot better." To date the three of them have produced 23 beers, ten of which are on tap at their Trent Street home, alongside local brews from Attic, Leviathan, Trinity and near neighbours Dig Brew. They even have a Prosecco tap for the beer-averse, while their Korean street food arm Seoul Food is set to take up cooking responsibilities as early as this weekend. "We're not into wildly challenging beer," says Giles. "Not keen on 16% abv TIPAs or sours that taste like Haribo Tangfastics. We're all about accessible, drinkable beers. Some of our most popular include Summer Haze IPA and a pale ale we called Chief Kegwin." I'll be visiting on the strength of that name alone. More
EXCLUSIVE: BIRMINGHAM TO GET TWO NEW MUSEUMS
It's official and it's breaking news, no less, Birmingham will get two new museums; one dedicated to its musical history and another will be the world's first Museum of Youth Culture. The two new venues will share part of the £260m Upper Trinity Street cultural, commercial and residential scheme in Digbeth, near the old home of Digbeth Dining Club. The council greenlit the plans moments ago (July 22) confirming, finally, a bricks and mortar venue that will champion our city's rich and diverse musical past. The Museum of Youth Culture will share the 6,500 sq ft space, fronting onto a new public park, all of which is set to open in Autumn 2025. The Museum of Youth Culture will celebrate the rich tapestry of social movements, subcultures, sounds and styles that span the generations and genres from post-war to modern-day Britain. It's housemate (so to speak), the music museum, will host a permanent exhibition of the Birmingham Music Archive celebrating our incredible music history by amplifying and displaying the stories and hidden places and spaces associated with Birmingham’s music. BMA founder and cultural lead on the project (the man tasked with ensuring Digbeth keeps its Digbethness) Jez Collins said: “Birmingham should be proud of its rich musical heritage and it’s time we started shouting about it. This is a once in a generation opportunity.” The project team has worked collaboratively with the Canal & River Trust to develop Pump House Park which is designed around the historic lock keepers cottage which is planned to be retained and renovated. The park will include a range of different spaces including playable landscapes as well as biodiversity features. Historic elements will be retained and contextualised. Speaking to ICB, specifically about the music museum element, Jez Collins said: "The vision for the Birmingham Music Museum is that it exhibits the materials so many of us keep under our beds, in our garages or up in the loft; photos, posters, magazines, tee-shirts, tickets, the demo you recorded at Rich Bitch or Grosvenor Studios. We want to tell the stories of the people of Birmingham and their contribution to local, national and international music culture. We want to represent, reflect and inspire the people of Birmingham — we are a city of music. You can help us build and curate the museum by sending in your materials and memories about any aspect of music in Birmingham to firstname.lastname@example.org or via our social accounts." You can follow the music museum project on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
After a year off, Moseley’s original community festival will be back July 23 to 25, for a series of smaller-scale events. More
There will be a one day only sausage dog pop-up cafe in the Custard Factory, October 2. Attendance compulsory. Details
Midday cocktails? There are a few spaces available at either 12pm or 3pm on Saturday (July 31) for The Victoria's cocktail making masterclass. —
Fancy watching live theatre in Warstone Lane Cemetery on Saturday (July 24)? Course you do. More — Masterchef winner Stu Deeley will be going head-to-head with Great British Menu-er Liam Dillon for a chef v chef six course tasting menu at The Boat Inn, Lichfield. Aug 11.
"One very hot August, while I was rehearsing an opera in Pesaro, Italy, we opened the doors on to the street, desperate for air. Within minutes, a group of teenage boys had stopped their football and were watching us work on Rossini - transfixed. To reach this kind of constituency in Birmingham, we decided to recruit members of the community into our work. People of all ages, races and backgrounds were targeted to ensure a microcosm. It was important that anybody who bought a ticket would find themselves represented in the performing company... the idea that the future of opera could lie solely in the hands of a rich ghetto is profoundly dispiriting. Mere survival is not enough. "
Sir Graham Vick in his lecture to the Royal Philharmonic Society, 2003
WORDS: Tom Cullen
PHOTOS: Paul Ward (Willard Wigan)
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