LITTLE NOW REMAINS of Victorian Birmingham, but by happy chance (and the benefits of lottery money) there are two permanent monuments to 19th-century art and culture in the city centre. Both of them were designed by local architect John Henry Chamberlain. The first is the Birmingham College of Art in Margaret Street, refurbished three years ago. It's one of the finest examples of Venetian-inspired gothic revival in the country. The other is Oozells Street School, which has reopened as the new home of the Ikon Gallery. This building has also been reconstructed, by Levitt Bernstein Associates, but in a way that allows the visitor to think about its original function.
Chamberlain was a Birmingham man, but not related to the Birmingham political dynasty of the same name. He was a Ruskinian social idealist, and many details of the art college come straight out of The Stones of Venice. I suppose that it is his masterpiece, though before his early death in 1883 he built some private houses in Edgbaston, now disappeared, which may have been just as good. One of them, Highbury, was the home of a mayor of Birmingham, George Baker, who was also a friend of Ruskin and a trustee of the art critic's Guild of St George. Baker was less of a social mystic than Ruskin. He had a clear understanding of pragmatic reform and a strong belief in education. It was during his mayoralty that most of the Birmingham Board Schools were built, of which Oozells Street is - I believe - the last surviving example.
The massive, extremely rapid growth of Birmingham in the 19th century caused the usual social problems of overcrowding, poverty and disease. Hundreds of thousands of people came to the city within a few decades. They were all new Brummies. This made Birmingham rather different from its neighbouring towns in the Black Country, where there were long-established communities. To this day, there are local customs, traditions and folklore in the Black Country that simply do not exist in Birmingham. In a sense, the culture of the new big city resided solely in its local government, philanthropy and civic pride. No other place in Britain was so concerned with its municipal virtues; and Birmingham city fathers, such as Baker, were sure that no great manufacturing centre could be complete without art.
This municipal ethos was still very strong when the Ikon was founded 35 years ago (perhaps I should confess here that I was a kid in one of Chamberlain's Board Schools, Bristol Street, and later taught at the Art School). But times change, and today Birmingham celebrates its artistic life in a different way. Now you walk from the Art School to the Ikon via the new International Convention Centre and Symphony Hall. Oozells Street is in the "Brindleyplace" development, which is being built with banks, office buildings, theme pubs, apartments and shops. There's an atmosphere of commercial enterprise. It feels like Canary Wharf, or many other places in contemporary Britain, and only Chamberlain's school reminds you that this is Birmingham.
British art life is full of such paradoxes. The Royal Academy's "Art Treasures of England" exhibition, with its Victorian atmosphere and emphasis on provincial independence, was widely admired. Yet we all know in our hearts that dignified regional museums are a thing of the past. Their day is done, if only because they have been so neglected that they can never catch up. The future belongs to galleries like the Ikon. They will be successful and fashionable places close to commercial and entertainment centres. They will have a fast turnover of shows, energetic publicity departments and high-profile directors. No such gallery would ever dream of forming a permanent collection. They will be competitive and international rather than local in their outlook and, at least for the moment, they will exhibit neo-conceptual art.
Her grasp of these realities makes the Ikon's Elizabeth Macgregor a formidable presence on the artistic scene. One hopes that she will devise a distinguished exhibition programme. The first artists to occupy the new spaces in Oozells Street are Georgina Starr (British, born 1968) and the American Nancy Spero, who is 72. Starr looks energetic but brittle; Spero humane but tired. There's an interesting contrast of personalities, but neither artist gives real satisfaction. Aesthetically, their work is superficial.
Of the two, I prefer Starr. She lacks style and judgement, but has lots of belligerent, occasionally touching self-esteem. Her Tuberama is an installation. A model tube train goes round and round the gallery, while we look at a cartoon film (animation by Starr) and listen to unpleasant music. Starr must count as a grown-up, given her age; but she seems to be apeing the experience of being an adolescent; that is, a person who was recently a child. I observe only that people often do similar projects at art school. Tuberama would be even more like a student piece if it were not so expensively constructed. I think her work is too small. Perhaps Starr ought not to be in a gallery but should fashion much bigger environments in places like theme parks.
Nancy Spero's work is also out of scale. Her variegated female figures, painted directly on to the walls of the upstairs gallery, do not make proper use of the Ikon's space. The figures ought to have been three times bigger, with firmer outlines. They look like stencils. I was sorry to learn that Spero did not execute this work herself. It was done by assistants whom she instructed via fax from America. The impression is of a somewhat casual involvement with the Ikon. Perhaps Spero was confused by its mixture of modern and Victorian architecture. In any case, we won't know its full potential before we see a genuinely good and committed artist in Oozells Street.
Ikon Gallery: 1 Oozells Sq, Birmingham B1 (0121 248 0708). Starr & Spero to 24 May.
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