Birmingham is an often-overlooked gem. Less than 90 minutes from London by train, the ‘capital of the Midlands’ is super accessible and has a huge amount to offer that may surprise you if you only know it as an industrial city.
For one thing, it’s a dream location for foodies in the UK. Not only is it the birthplace of the Balti curry, Birmingham also boasts four Michelin-starred restaurants and plenty of new independents, serving everything from sourdough pizzas to handmade tacos. Add to that all the museums celebrating the city’s diverse history, a world-class symphony orchestra, fabulous parks, modern shopping centres, and easy access to the surrounding countryside, and you have a city that is easily worth a few days' stay when you visit the UK.
One unsung cultural highlight is Birmingham’s thriving art scene. It's home to a vibrant community of artists and a bunch of awesome galleries that feature some of the most diverse exhibitions in the UK.
Here are five must-see artistic destinations in the UK’s second city.
Offering free entry to all, Ikon is a charity that aims to encourage public engagement with art, describing itself as the “antithesis of exclusive art establishments and galleries.”
There are daily Spotlight Tours showcasing key works in the current exhibition. There's also a large education programme for children, with regular family days and workshops available throughout its events calendar.
With a constantly changing programme of exhibitions from the best of global contemporary art icons, Ikon is a must-see attraction for the discerning art-lover.
One legacy of Birmingham’s industrial heritage is the sheer abundance of disused warehouse and factory space. Eastside Projects has put them to brilliant use. They're an “artist-run multiverse” with a unique approach to contemporary art, even offering a downloadable user's manual to the gallery. With the aim of demonstrating how art can be useful to society as a whole, Eastside Projects hosts thought-provoking exhibitions and events throughout the year.
Another Birmingham gallery offering free entry to all, notable projects include Seoul-based collective Mixrice’s exhibition as part of the Korea/UK 2017-18 celebration of British and Korean art and culture. Previous exhibitors have included Roger Howard, Flore Nové-Josserand, and Bill Drummond.
Round the corner from Eastside Projects is Centrala, a fixture of the thriving art scene based in the Digbeth area of the city. Centrala is a non-profit organisation presenting art from Central and Eastern Europe and the UK, and it’s run by the Polish Expats Association.
Centrala also hosts film and music events, and has close ties to Birmingham’s avant-garde music scene. With a vegan and vegetarian café, it’s well worth a stop as you make your way around the city.
Part of the Minerva Works development (again in Digbeth), Grand Union is an Arts Council England-supported art space that aims to present innovative curatorial practice, talks, and events. It also offers affordable art space to contemporary artists.
Open from 12-5pm every day, again with free entry, Grand Union’s focus on promoting curation as a skill leads to fascinating results. For example, the VOZ RARA season in 2017-18, led by curators in residence Valerio Del Baglivo and Anna Santomouro, explored the theme of ‘Voice and Communication’. It featured films from Greek/British artist Mikhail Karikis and Serbian video artist Katarina Zdeljar, and talks and workshops from Sabel Galvadon and Hamish Macpherson.
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
Home to the largest public Pre-Raphaelite collection in the world, the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery also features many exhibitions examining Birmingham’s history through art and photography. It also hosts regular exhibitions and events for families, and an annual exhibition of the finalists and winners from Inspire, the gallery’s art competition for 5-19 year olds.
Coupled with the museum and delightful Edwardian tea rooms (ideal to rest the legs with a cuppa!), this is the perfect way to finish off a day of art appreciation in Birmingham!