Arts: Birmingham's first lady of art
Liz Ann Macgregor is bringing fine art to the people at the new Ikon Gallery in Birmingham. David Lister was charmed
A founder member of The Independent David Lister joined the paper in 1986 as Assistant Home Editor. He became the paper's arts correspondent in 1988 and is now Arts Editor and writes a column each Saturday. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Wednesday 11 March 1998
"I wore a pretty violent combination that day," admits Liz Ann Macgregor, the Orkney-born director of Birmingham's Ikon Gallery. "I had my bagpipe watch, tartan bag, tartan outfit and tartan shoes." Then she sighs. Has her pounds 4m lottery award been withdrawn? Has next week's re-opening of the Ikon Gallery in a fascinating architectural renovation of a Birmingham Victorian school been postponed? Nothing so trivial.
"I've heard to my horror that Doc Martens are going to stop making tartan boots, I shall have to call them and see if we can come to an arrangement."
Ms Macgregor is proud of her roots. She grew up in the Orkneys, studied at Edinburgh University, drove an "art bus" round the Highlands, and so as the head of Birmingham's only contemporary art gallery she continues to wear her Scottish colours. Anyway, the tartan makes a striking visual contrast to her red lips, hair and fingernails, if someone so undoubtedly at the cutting edge will forgive an allusion to an old Rod Stewart number.
Liz Ann Macgregor (it's Elizabeth on her business cards, but in real life she uses her two Christian names) has good reason to feel proud of her success so far and of her new gallery. But the "we" night also refer to a more domestic unit. Her husband Peter Jenkinsen - whom she met in that well-known hive of romance, the Museums Association conference at Bournemouth - runs the nearby Walsall Art Gallery, a collection of stunning masterpieces, from Van Gogh to Picasso, in a most unlikely setting. Like the Ikon, the Walsall Art Gallery is also moving into new premises. Both won lottery millions to do so. Both appeared together on TV's lottery show. Both are hugely respected in the art world. Who'd want to stop being one half of the West Midlands golden couple to join the often superficial glitter of the London art world?
Certainly not Liz Ann Macgregor at the moment. At 39 and with a new gallery in Birmingham's trendiest and artiest area - opposite Ronnie Scott's, next to the canal and its wine bars and cafes, and behind Symphony Hall and Centenary Square - the daughter of the Bishop of Moray, Ross and Cromarty is ideally placed to continue with her life's mission: involving the people with contemporary art.
The new Ikon is the ideal place to continue this interaction. The old building attracted 50,000 people a year, and that was without a cafe or toilets. The new building, a converted Victorian brick schoolhouse, complete with Gothic tower, has both, and the visitor figures are expected to treble. Entrance is free, a fact that is written in the doorway in no fewer than 17 languages, which says something about Macgregor and about inner-city Birmingham; the area buzzes, particularly in the summer; the gallery has evening openings and the ground floor, unusually, is given over to the cafe, before visitors are tempted upstairs to two gleaming white floors to see the art. They make the journey by glass staircase or glass lift on the outside of the original building.
"I wanted to make the experience of going up through the building as exciting as possible," says the director delightedly.
Involving the people started for Liz Ann Macgregor after she switched from her languages course at university to art history, with which she became "besotted." She conducted voluntary guided tours at the National Galleries of Scotland - "I was interested in building a relationship between art and the public, which is unusual for an art historian. They are more interested in provenance and all that."
Later she was to drive a mobile exhibition bus round Scotland, taking works by Gormley, Kapoor and Deacon to little villages and rural communities.
"My father and I are in the same business," she says. "He is converting people to religion. I am converting people to art."
At the old Ikon over the last few years this has taken the form of a large programme of taking exhibitions to schools and community halls, and - something close to the Macgregor heart - breaking down the exclusivity of contemporary art. Her front-of-house staff of non-art experts are consulted in every post mortem on an exhibition, and at the new Ikon staff will be centre stage in the galleries to answer questions.
"There's a terrible arrogance in the art world about not providing information. But we get information as curators when we visit artists at their studios and talk to them. Yes, people can make their own interpretations, but they have to have information. There's this whole myth that because it's visual you don't need any written information or anyone talking to you. We've got to get away from this myth that you walk into an art gallery and you suddenly get struck by lightning."
This is far from being an echo of the Government's art for the people crusade. In fact, although Liz Ann and husband have been invited to Downing Street to talk art over dinner with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, she is scathing about New Labour's art crusade. "If I hear Chris Smith make another speech about art on the metro I shall go mad," she says. "There should be links between outside and inside, community art as an approach to high art."
She takes an equally radical stance in her exhibitions policy, resolutely ignoring many of the London Sensation crowd, from Damien Hirst downwards. "I haven't jumped on the bandwagon to show the latest trend. The criterion is they have to have something to communicate to Birmingham."
Not that she is in any sense a traditionalist. Mud on the walls and potatoes as a link to science have both formed parts of controversial and ultimately successful Macgregor exhibitions. And she was championing South American art long before it became hip.
The opening exhibitions at the new Ikon are characteristic Macgregor, a contradictory combination of the intense, theatrical, mischievous and provocative clothed in multimedia. Twentysomething Georgina Starr's Tuberama has a model train journeying round a model tube system with an animation video and CD listening booth and a castle where tube travellers confront their emotions. "It's expanding the idea of what art is about," says Macgregor. "It's more like a theatrical production than an artwork."
On the second floor, American septuagenarian Nancy Spero has a room of images of women. Liz Ann looks at one of those images, a frieze of ancient Egyptian women dancing with a dildo. She smiles at the thought of an irresistible photo opportunity, even if just for the family album. "I might get my father to pose in front of that," she chuckles, "he's a very liberal Bishop."
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