Opened in 1939, just six weeks before the outbreak of World War II, and tucked away in a corner of Birmingham University campus is a very special place, known to fewer people than it ought to be. At least (I hope) until now. This is the Barber Institute of Fine Arts.
A striking Art Deco building designed by Robert Atkinson, the imposing exterior does credit to the treasures within. With a permanent collection that includes work by Picasso, Monet, Rodin, Manet, Degas, Magritte, Turner, Derain, Van Gogh, Whistler, Gauguin, Botticelli, Rubens and Gainsborough, as well as containing several hundred drawings and prints, any visit to the Barber is an artistic delight, and you can visit on any day of the week. Perhaps what I most value about the Barber is the space and peace of the galleries, qualities rarely - if ever, now - found in places like the Tate or Royal Academy. You can really take time with the painting or drawing of your choice, to engage with it and let it get under your skin, as you won't have to jostle with crowds, or have your concentration broken by some selfish philistine cutting across your line of vision.
If your tastes are more modern, the Barber is not just about long-dead artists. In February the Barber joins the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Wolverhampton Art Gallery and the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry, in hosting New Art West Midlands 2015. This exhibition contains some of the best work by recent graduates of the five West Midlands university art schools and the Barber trails it by saying that "Voyeurism, idolatry, the transience of life and orange-phobia are among the diverse subjects and themes explored in this year’s New Art West Midlands." I can't wait.
Many people don't know that the Barber also has a coin gallery, which has, among other exhibits, one of Europe's finest collections of Byzantine coins. There is also an excellent concert hall which in this quarter alone hosts the Birmingham International Piano Festival and performances from, among others, the Nash Ensemble and the Dante and Tesla string quartets.
But one of my favourite aspects of this gallery is its accessibility to the young. The Barber regularly holds creative Sunday workshops, welcomes visits from schools and colleges and makes art a living, breathing thing for all. On 17th February, a Picasso Family Day is being run on a "no booking required" basis, where young visitors can enjoy storytellers, animations and films about Picasso (in an event organised in association with the Flatpack Festival) and can even make a Picasso postcard to send to the Japanese home gallery of one the Barber's current borrowed exhibits "Woman Sleeping in a Chair".
There is so much more than this (did I mention the book club?), but why not go there as soon as you can and form your own view? I bet you go again...and again.
The Barber is special to Birmingham, and makes Birmingham a more special place. The gallery even has its own bull....
Words by PJB @TamertonPJB #BetterInBrum