Culture Faves: The Secret Gallery

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 years 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

All photos © The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham. @BarberInstitute

Culture Faves: It's Better in Birmingham

This week, we introduce PJB who is keen to share her initial thoughts when newly arriving into Birmingham. We think it's great to see our fine city through a fresh pair of eyes!

Moving from London to work here, I knew little of Birmingham and what I knew was not generally admired. Unloved accents, the impenetrable Spaghetti Junction, a concrete jungle of a shopping centre. Here it is, Merry Christmas. In my defence, the national (for which read London) press always overlooked Birmingham - that is, when they weren't ridiculing it. They still do, preferring to pretend that Manchester is the second city in all but name (why exactly did the BBC move to Salford, when it already had an outpost here?). I was so wrong, and I apologise to everyone for being such a fool.

So, what words would I now use about this fabulous city to set the record straight?

Independent. Birmingham has independence of mind and attitude to all things. Independent art galleries, coffee shops, markets, cinemas, arts centres, food shops and much more.

Energy.  From the moment you set foot here there is a buzz about this city - through its arts and music scene, its start-up and established businesses, through its architecture; it feels cutting edge. The people who live here love their city and make no apology for doing so.  Frankly, they don't care what other people think because they know that Birmingham is the place to be.

Creativity. Everywhere you turn there is innovation. More start- ups than anywhere in the UK, more imagination and determination to get things done. Just take the Custard Factory. Or the new crowd-funded Impact Hub in Digbeth. An eclectic mix of artists, designers, entrepreneurs, thinkers and doers made this exciting project happen through sheer effort of will. 

Risky (in a good way). Birmingham takes risks. It did with the old library, a brutalist masterpiece that, like Marmite, people either love or hate; it has done with the new library, with much the same outcome! 

Young. This is a city full of young, energetic people. More young professionals move here from London than to any other UK city.

Whatever you want from life, you can get it here. Michelin starred restaurants? Try Adams, or Purnells. Art Lover? Visit the wonderful Barber Institute, or the daringly curated exhibitions at the Ikon, one of the most highly regarded modern art galleries among artists worldwide. Or try the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, which hosts touring exhibitions as well as housing one of the largest collections of pre-Raphaelite art in the world.

Music? Any music you want is here - from internationally acclaimed artists at the Arena, the Welsh National Opera's visits to the Hippodrome, at the Jam House or The Digbeth Institute,  the Conservatoire and CBSO, to concerts and free jazz in the foyer of Symphony Hall, which itself has one of the finest acoustics in the world.

Want to party? We have an eclectic mix of pubs, clubs, comedy venues, a thriving Gay scene, and all with that certain Birmingham outlook that parties like there is nowhere else to be.

And for me, there isn't.

Words by PJB @TamertonPJB #BetterInBrum

Photos: Birmingham Favourites @BrumFaves