Guest Post by Mark Sheerin
Mark Sheerin is a writer and critic from Brighton, England. He is a regular contributor to Culture24, Frame & Reference and Hyperallergic.
There are at least a million differences between Chicago, USA, and Birmingham, UK, but surely the two cities have something in common. Both are working cities, marked by grit rather than glitz. And both have thriving art scenes, which are often overlooked by media outlets based elsewhere.
Nevertheless, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, remains one of the UKâ€™s most exciting regional spaces – some feat, given its long 50-year history. Speaking with Curator Stuart Tulloch offered a chance to get some insight into what it takes to bring art to the provinces.
â€œIf youâ€™re in London, youâ€™re still thinking about people who are in London, and in a sense the angleâ€™s still provincial,â€ he says. â€œLondon will think about whatâ€™s relevant to be shown or to be seen within London, and in some ways Birmingham removes you from that.â€
Ikon, as it seems, exhibits more artists from Japan, than from the UK capital. Says curator Tulloch: â€œContemporary art allows you to progress ideas or to bring ideas from another place. I think thatâ€™s the wonderful thing about it; itâ€™s very much a global discussion.â€
But not all discussions run smoothly and Tulloch is a veteran of debate and persuasion. For nine years he was at Grundy Art Gallery, in the cheap and cheerful seaside resort of Blackpool in the North West. Working in a space run by the local council he was forever negotiating with councillors with little interest in and knowledge of art.
By the time he left Grundy, â€œit got their respect.â€ And the embattled curator now considers one of his best achievements: â€œconvincing them that this artist from that part of the world, doing something which they didnâ€™t understand, was very good . . . and was good to have in Blackpoolâ€.
If anyone doubts that so many years as curator of a smalltown gallery would be anything but a labour of love, think again. â€œMy wife and I decorated the place,â€ Tulloch recalls, â€œand Iâ€™d clean the place every morning. It was small enough I could do that, but the more ambitious it became, it got harder.â€ Despite these daily trials, he recalls it as â€œa great timeâ€.
But you also sense his relief to be at Ikon, â€œwhere the focus is about the art,â€ rather than local services. â€œThis is an amazing place, with an enviable reputation and an international reputation,â€ he says with no hint of spin, â€It can say â€˜This is interesting. Hereâ€™s something youâ€™ve never seen before. Letâ€™s bring this person from the other side of the world to share something with Birminghamâ€™.â€
Working in any gallery has its challenges, meanwhile, not least challenges from a coalition government who arenâ€™t keen on the public sector. Tulloch speaks of â€œtrying to do the same things, which people have become accustomed to, with the same quality, the same depth, the same ambition, but with less moneyâ€.
One paradox about visual arts in the UK is that, against the backdrop of ruthless cuts, we have seen a healthy spate of newbuild galleries open in recent years. These pose an added challenge to an established space like Ikon. â€œPeople are, like, â€˜Oh yeah, Ikon is great,â€™ but then itâ€™s passed over, because itâ€™s â€˜greatâ€™. How do you get that attention? How can people refocus back into it?â€ asks the curator.
Just as there are more and more galleries, so there are more and more artists to consider. Tulloch says, â€œCertain countries are opening up to contemporary art,â€ and suggests that, globally, we do have a â€œshared languageâ€.
But at the same time, he is under no illusions that work produced just anywhere will travel well to Birmingham. â€œItâ€™s interesting when you go away to any international art event, like Venice, thereâ€™s still stuff there thatâ€™s relevant only to that country. You think, This is very Italian, or, It doesnâ€™t quite translate into whatâ€™s going on here.â€
In an interesting aside the curator also points out that â€œCommercial galleries will show different work during Frieze Art Fair in London than they would show at [Art Basel in] Miami.â€ For the record he suggests â€œvery bright fluorescent pinkâ€ stuff does better in Florida.
Unsurprisingly, Tulloch is more at home in the public sector where support counts for more than sales. Previous to Grundy, he was at Hayward Gallery in London where the first show he worked on was for Belgian artist Panamarenko: â€œHere was a man making flying machines, with his own theory of relativity, and I thought, Thatâ€™s amazing. It kind of blew my mind.â€
There was only an outside chance this artistâ€™s creations could ever fly and this has stuck with the curator, â€œThat really appeals to me – trying to achieve that – the hopelessness and eternal optimism that you can find in contemporary art.â€ It reminds him, perhaps, that the odds are stacked against you, wherever you try and get a brilliant show off the ground.
Ikon’s current brilliant show features Birmingham artist Hurvin Anderson and can be seen until November 10 2013.