Midwest to Midville: repositioning the visual arts in the Midlands

This Monday saw the thoroughly enjoyable, thought provoking and inspiring symposium, ‘Midwest to Midville’ held at Birmingham’s IKON Gallery, co-hosted by ‘Turning Point West Midlands’.  It was an especially encouraging day and unusually for a large event, there was a real community, collaborative atmosphere.  It felt like a beginning, not a culmination.   I was very glad to be a part of it.

‘Repositioning the visual arts in the Midlands’

It would have been more suitably characterised:

‘Repositioning the Midlands in the visual arts’

For this was the central theme of the symposium; how to attract funding, attention and a viable, dynamic arts scene to Birmingham and the surrounding areas. 

Jonathan Watkins (Ikon) started the day.  He stressed the value of Birmingham’s cultural capital – and the value its heritage can still offer the contemporary art scene.  However, the present, he argued, is an incredibly stimulating time for regional arts, especially with organisations such as NAGW and the ever exciting ESP.   This progression, it was (appropriately) felt, is now at a tipping / turning point.  It’s up to us to ensure it turns the right way!

For myself, a PhD candidate in modern history, this chronological(ish) theme had my immediate attention.  This was further engaged by David Powell’s plea for a ‘re-balancing of our cultural capital.’  He cited the shocking fact that London receives art funding at a ratio of 15:1 (per person), compared with the rest of the country.  I wholeheartedly agreed with his proposition, that funding should be taken to where the public lives and works.  The main suggestion of the day was Lottery funding; relocating the money which people actively choose to spend.

But even if this money is relocated – what would the Midlands do with it?

The first Panel, MidWest, consisting of Rachel Bradley (Freelance Curator) , Daniel Pryde-Jarman (Meter Room, Coventry) Marlene Smith (Artist and Curator) and Steve Trow (Councillor, Sandwell Council), considered significant artistic developments over the last fifty years, since the beginning of Ikon (est. 1964).  Key themes encompassed – that if change is to happen – if we are to have a meaningful, vigorous and integrated arts scene, it needs to be artist led.  Such art wants to respond to the reality of life in a site specific mannerThe Region is important.   To address the ‘Inequality of Distribution’, which David Powell identified at the start of the day, Marlene Smith addressed the necessity to work together.  This is the only way to create radical, artistic change.  Rachel Bradley agreed, citing the success of the Glasgow art scene, who took responsibility for the operation of their own arts community.

The Midville Panel discussion sought to offer some thoughts on the future of Midlands arts – where they might lead, and what we can actively do.  Wendy Law (TPWM), Lynda Morris (Norwich University of the Arts), Jonathan Shaw (Coventry University) and Gavin Wade (Eastside Projects) were members.  The advantages and disadvantages of practising art in the ‘regions’ was a key theme of Gavin Wade’s talk [ESP].  Whilst this certainly gives freedom, to work without constricting expectations, he maintained that the ‘small ponds’ need to be connected.  The turning point here, it increasingly emerged was to attach all the parts; link the centres of art creation to establish new networks and spaces of discussion.   This theme linked nicely with Jonathan Shaw’s thoughts on rebalancing new digital spheres with traditional, physical work.  The physical is still of utmost importance, but digital technology enables these spaces to be visible and connected.

The second key note lecture was given by Mathew Higgs (White Columns, New York).  He highlighted the extraordinary art work which occurs in the periphery, and again – a theme is appearing – the importance of peer narratives and self-determination.  The key to regional success, he argued is establishing a dialect.  This will probably be a slow process, but what is important is the difference of place, of situation.  This is why, in Birmingham, Bristol, Coventry, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, and Newcastle (for example, the list continues…) the arts scene is so exciting.  It is different.

For me, the fundamental message of the day was:

Collaborate and Communicate.

For a vibrant and dynamic scene, common spaces, in which to discuss, develop and importantly, establish a ‘dialect’ are of integral importance.

Thanks to Ikon, Turning Point West Midlands, Midwest and Midville for an inspirational day.


3 thoughts on “Make, Share, Mobilise! – Turning Point West Midlands

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