Representing the British Midlands is Birmingham, birthplace of the first practical steam engine and home to countless cultural and political movements. As the second-largest city in the UK, and with its history of both innovation and social mobility, it’s no wonder the Second City is brimming with so many contemporary art venues to visit and cultural programmes to experience.
Among the organisations making Birmingham a cultural staple is Ikon, an internationally acclaimed contemporary art venue situated in central Birmingham. Housed in a magnificent neo-gothic school building, it is an educational charity and works to encourage public engagement with contemporary art. The gallery programme features artists from around the world, as well as local talent. Ikon offers free entry to all.
The following are some noteworthy Birmingham art spaces, freebies and events, chosen by Sam Newman, Head of Development at Ikon.
A short ten-minute walk from Ikon is Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, otherwise known as BMAG. A city-centre landmark, BMAG has over 40 galleries to explore, including a vast permanent collection and temporary exhibitions by the likes of Rachel Maclean and Capsule’s iconic Home of Metal exhibition. There’s also a stunning Edwardian Tea Room.
Minerva Works, Digbeth
Minerva Works is home to Centrala, Vivid Projects, Grand Union and Stryx, all of which are great independent galleries each with unique exhibition and events programmes. It’s also home to artist studios and music spaces that open late.
Just around the corner from Minerva Works is Eastside Projects, an artist-run space for experimental art practice with a changing exhibition programme that asks questions about the role of art in modern society.
On the grounds of the University of Birmingham, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts is home to an impressive collection, including work by Botticelli, Turner, Degas, Gauguin and Magritte. Temporary exhibitions also feature, all housed in one of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture in the city.
Less than a minute’s walk from New Street Station, Birmingham Open Media (BOM) is a centre for art, technology and science. Born from the hacker culture, exhibitions exploring digital culture change regularly and they have a great onsite café.
Taking place on the first Friday of each month is when to visit for new art openings, performances and music. Grab some street food at Digbeth Dining Club and make a night of it. Digbeth is also home to the largest selection of street art and graffiti in the city.
Public Art in Birmingham
There are lots of public sculptures and artworks in and around the city centre including Gillian Wearing’s A Real Birmingham Family in Centenary Square, which was commissioned by Ikon! Also, a new Marko Mäetamm sculpture at Aston University and Antony Gormley’s Iron Man, though it’s now in (temporary) storage for Metro works.
Head upstairs to the Secret Garden on level 7 for a panoramic view of the City.
A free film festival that takes place every summer in Brindleyplace. Deck chairs provided.
Sweet study spots
How could we not mention our beautiful onsite café?! Yorks is a great place to take a laptop and your books and enjoy house-roasted coffee and excellent sharing plates and cakes. They also have another café on Stephenson Street, just adjacent to New Street station.
Formerly the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists’ gallery space, Medicine is a hidden gem, offering a wide range of cakes, sandwiches and freshly baked sourdough. The light, bright open gallery space is perfect for study, meetings and socialising.
Alternative and art cinemas
Established in 1909 The Electric Cinema is the oldest working cinema in the UK. They have a great programme including big Hollywood films alongside arthouse gems and the annual Shock & Gore festival for horror fans. Text the bar staff for table service to your pre-booked sofa seats.
The Mockingbird in the Custard Factory is a small but perfectly formed independent cinema that shows rarities as well as current mainstream cinema. They are well known for their film marathons and sing-a-long screenings, as well as bottomless Prosecco matinees.
Flatpack host events throughout the year. Their Beware the Moon outdoor screenings at Dudley Castle are not to be missed and are the closest thing to a drive-thru experience you can get, without the car.
Adornments for your calendar
Taking place during spring 2020, Ikon presents the third iteration of The Migrant Festival. Over a period of four days, the festival programme includes music, film, talks and exhibitions celebrating Birmingham’s diverse roots, welcoming new arrivals to the city.
Flatpack is Birmingham’s annual independent film festival. Taking over various venues, the programme includes work by emerging filmmakers, alongside everything from animation to classic screenings with newly interpreted live-music scores. Keep an eye on their website for other events throughout the year.
2021 edition TBA
Fierce is a bi-annual Live Art festival with an international reputation for emerging, overlooked, unusual & difficult live art practices from around the world. Events take place across the city with performances in theatres, galleries and other out-of-the-ordinary spaces, including a big party with DJs to kick off the festival.
2020 edition TBA
Curated by Capsule and taking place each summer, Supersonic Festival is an internationally renowned experimental music and arts festival. Expect to discover music from bands and artists who define alternative.
2020 edition TBA
Launching in 2009, SHOUT takes place each November and celebrates Birmingham’s LGBT community with an annual programme of film, art and performance events dedicated to Queer culture.