When it comes to art galleries, Birmingham can rival pretty much anywhere in the UK, with elegant displays of fine and classical art alongside a vibrant contemporary scene showcasing some seriously impressive new artistic talent. And the best thing? Some of them are housed in buildings beautiful enough to be attractions themselves. So whether you're making a beeline for big old beasts like the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, or seeking more niche spots like Grand Union, you can be assured that your artistic sensibilities will be well rewarded. Plus, don't forget that our museums have some beautiful pieces, too.
Birmingham art galleries
Get your walking shoes on if you’re planning a visit to the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, because this exceptional cultural space offers a wealth of exhibits to explore. The domed Round Room – often the location for free musical performances and watched over by Jacob Epstein’s striking bronze statue The Archangel Lucifer – is a good starting point. Visitors can peruse one of the largest pre-Raphaelite collections in the world, delve into the treasures found in the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found or head up to the third level for a detailed, hands-on history of Birmingham and its people. There are also a number of finds from Greek, Egyptian and Roman culture, and guided tours are regularly available if you’d like a more informed account of the building’s offerings. We also heartily recommend you make time for a slice of cake at BMAG’s refurbished Edwardian Tea Room. If you’re looking for something a little more contemporary, head round the side of the building to Gas Hall and the Waterhall Gallery in Edmund Street (entrances opposite each other). These spaces host both touring work from international artists and pieces from local artists, the latter often displayed during the biennial West Midlands Open. Most of BMAG’s wonders are completely free, although some exhibitions have a small entry fee.
Ikon, the beating heart of contemporary art in Birmingham, spent the early days of its half-century existence hopping all over the city. Since 1997, however, it has been settled into its permanent home in a striking neo-gothic building in Brindleyplace. Set up by a group of creatives from the Birmingham School of Art, Ikon has long offered programmes that mix the local with the international. It has displayed work from world-famous Cuban artists such as Carmen Herrera, and also afforded Birmingham artists a critically adored space in which to increase their profile – Richard Billingham’s exhibition at the gallery, for example, saw him shortlisted for the Turner Prize. Reached via Martin Creed’s singing lift, the main gallery is spread out across two floors to allow room for larger conceptual pieces, while the smaller Tower Room is often utilised for multimedia work. Ikon is also committed to offsite work, even taking art out on to the region’s canal network, while the gallery’s independent bookshop attracts hordes of art students. It doesn’t skimp on the food and drink either – Ikon’s café, a joint venture with Birmingham’s Opus restaurant, offers some British classics at reasonable prices.
A whole lot of history runs through the veins of the RBSA Gallery. The Royal Birmingham Society of Artists was set up in the 1820s, receiving its royal charter in 1868 from Queen Victoria. Throughout its illustrious life it has had a number of famous presidents, including textiles craftsman William Morris and painter John Everett Millais, while Prince Charles is an honorary member. It moved from its opulent New Street premises in 2000 to settle in Brook Street, just off St Paul’s Square in the Jewellery Quarter, and, while the modern building might not be as beautiful as its former digs, the gallery has a programme of dazzling exhibitions that make up for it. The RBSA manages strikes a balance between celebrating its notable history and ensuring it has a place in the city’s modern day artistic development. Exhibitions will often mine from the 800-plus works in its permanent collection, including ceramics, jewellery and drawings, but the gallery also encourages local artists through open submission exhibitions, as well as the RBSA Art Prize and a number of free workshops.
You might not expect one of the country’s finest collections of art to be found within a rather unassuming building on a university campus, but that speaks to the very nature of Birmingham – a city that has great things, but rarely shouts about them. The Barber Institute of Fine Arts offers an astonishing collection of paintings, fine prints, miniatures and sculptures that features works from some of the most famous artists of all time, with no entry charge to enjoy them. The inside is a stark change from the outside, an oasis of quiet where visitors can experience more than 500 years of European fine art. Beginning at the 14th century and moving all the way up to the 20th, the collection dips into cubism, post-impressionism, the renaissance and many other artistic styles and eras, with works from Van Gogh, Picasso and Rembrandt, among others. The Barber Institute often loans works to other major galleries in the UK, including London’s National Gallery, and receives celebrated compositions from their collections in return. Alongside the permanent collection, the gallery offers space for shorter exhibitions from modern artists, while the building also has an impressive art deco hall that hosts concerts from the great and the good of the classical world.
While Birmingham’s industrial life is largely something of the past, a number of the empty warehouses and factories left behind have been co-opted by creative types looking to utilise them for artistic, rather than practical, reasons. That’s most obviously the case in Digbeth, where a former cabinet maker’s on Heath Mill Lane has been transformed into Eastside Projects, one of the city’s most exciting artistic spaces. Founded in 2008 by a collective of artists that includes Gavin Wade, Ruth Claxton and architect Céline Condorelli, this vast building is the complete opposite of a cosy gallery space. The project’s early statement: ‘We do not make art for the public. We are the public that make art,’ expresses its aim to democratise the world of art. It has two galleries, hosting four or five exhibitions in each every year – some of which utilise multimedia elements. Artists who’ve exhibited at the space include Cao Fei and Bill Drummond, and the way in which exhibitions are put up and taken down means pieces of former displays often find themselves co-opted into new exhibits, forming a link between all of the works that have appeared in the space. Entry is free, but make sure to take a jumper if you’re visiting in the colder months.
While some arts centres can be quite limited in what artistic disciplines they feature in their programme, mac doesn’t discriminate, and offers everything from theatre and comedy to cinema, dance, and visual art. Situated on the edge of Cannon Hill Park, it’s been at the centre of Birmingham’s arts community for decades, and once counted Oscar-nominated Mike Leigh as one of its resident theatre directors. Simply put, anyone interested in the fringes of modern theatre should make the mac one of their first ports of call, as both the main theatre and smaller Hexagon space give room to some of the most cutting edge (and, often, bizarre) theatre companies working today. There’s a small outdoor arena that comes into use in the summer, hosting theatre and live music, and the designers even found room for a first-floor gallery that offers both touring works and commissions from Midlands artists. The mac holds a plethora of workshops and courses – running the gamut from animation and capoeira dance to ceramics and tai chi – and Birmingham comic James Cook leads a regular stand-up course for anybody looking to turn their gags into polished routines. Throw in a small cinema that often screens films you won’t see anywhere else in the city, and you’ve got one of the most important cultural spaces in Birmingham.
Reopened to great fanfare in 2013 after a multimillion pound makeover, the Library of Birmingham is a work of art in its own right. One of Europe’s largest regional libraries – joined at the hip to the Birmingham Rep in Centenary Square – its outer shell features a skin of metal hoops stretching across all six storeys, as designed by Dutch architecture company Mecanoo. The inner design meanwhile, ranges from sleek modern funnel to book-lined Hogwarts-esque staircases. The gallery itself is located on the third floor, just next to the BFI Mediatheque, and most of the pictures on offer are taken from the library’s significant photographic archive (including work from the likes of Sir Benjamin Stone, Val Williams and Brian Griffin). It’s overseen by the Grain photography hub for the West Midlands, which also lends work to other galleries across the region and organises collaborations with international galleries. The library exhibitions are usually linked to events across various other city centre spaces, with related workshops happening elsewhere in the library and curator tours available. It may be a small space when compared with other Birmingham galleries, but it’s one of the most important in terms of collating and preserving the city’s heritage.
The Birmingham legacy of Vivid is a long and storied one. This media art collective was formed in 1992 to carry on the legacy of the historic Birmingham Film and Video Workshop by producing interdisciplinary work for both its home city and the world. It closed in 2012 after a loss of funding, but this proved a mere bump in the road, and Vivid lives on at Digbeth’s Minerva Works in Fazeley Street as a streamlined, but still risk-taking, version of the original masterminded by Yasmeen Baig-Clifford. Vivid Projects has taken over a warehouse along the Warwick Bar canalside, using this momentous space to offer multimedia exhibitions, live performance and discussions. With past events having examined the history of slide-tape presentations, and regular nights being held by Birmingham collective SOUNDKitchen, Vivid has as much interest in the medium as the message and remains one of the most important art collectives in the city.
Commercial galleries can sometimes be off-putting to art lovers who don’t have a few thousand pounds handy, but that’s certainly not the case with Castle Fine Art, part of a chain of UK galleries that began life in the West Midlands. Founder Paul Green was keen to create galleries that could be enjoyed by everybody, whether they wanted to look or buy, and that ethos stayed relevant even as the chain grew across the country from its original Palisades location. The Birmingham gallery in the International Convention Centre has been operating for over two decades, making it one of the longest running galleries in the city. One of its crown jewels has been a collection of Salvador Dali sculptures, and it has also shown the ‘Drawn Blank’ series by Bob Dylan, work from Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood and comic book artist Alex Ross, and a series of portraits by Birmingham artist Jon Jones. Most importantly for a gallery such as this, the staff are friendly and engaging, never making you feel like you have to leave if you aren’t willing to part with your lifesavings.
Forming part of the burgeoning artistic community in and around the Minerva Works in Digbeth, Grand Union (named after the canal that runs nearby) is a free gallery that also includes eight purpose-built studios for Birmingham artists to use as a base. As befits the art that’s been flooding out of Eastside these past few years, the work on offer is multidiscipline – from video to sculpture to audio work. The great appeal of Grand Union, though, is that it’s a living, breathing space occupied by working artists beavering away behind the scenes. This carries through to the work-in-progress exhibitions that give visitors the chance to look at artistic work in its nascent stages. The artists who occupy the studios help to promote the gallery too – either by documenting events, designing flyers, or cementing the building’s ethos as a community-led space – and the gallery shop offers limited-edition artwork from a number of artists who have exhibited there in the past. As with other galleries in the area, opening hours are related to when an exhibition is on, and you’ll need to use the buzzer to get in.