Well here is my comparison of my Cultural Life in Birmingham, after London, which although not extensive, is based on my personal experiences, however I have provided links for each establishment for further information.
Performance Venues of London
Obviously in London, we were spoilt for choice when it came to our performance options. For our classical tastes one could often venture to the renowned Royal Opera House, to see either the world famous Royal Opera Company or The Royal Ballet, with occasional outings to the Sadlers Wells Theatre for Ballet Rambert. Our desire for contemporary dance would be further quelled by the nearby and ever improving Place theatre, in Euston, whereas our multi-cultural thirsts were quenched by the Kathak and Bharatnatyam shows at The Bhavan in West Kensington and The Nehru Centre in Mayfair.
Our passion for live theatre was satiated by the intimate Pit theatre, at the Barbican, which has provided the RSC with one of best venues, they ever had, whilst the various guises of The Almeida Theatre were also in easy access when living in North London. However The South Bank had also been a regular source of entertainment in our time in London, with its National Theatre, Royal Festival Hall and its more intimate neighbours, The Purcell Room and Queen Elizabeth Hall, all providing venues for a variety of performances ranging from South Asian Dance to British Youth Opera productions as well as the more usual renditions of the Classics.
Just down the road from there, The Globe Theatre, provided the summer outdoor alternative, which although is sometimes harshly criticised for its productions of Shakespeare’s History plays or Tragedies, is definitely one of the better arenas to experience his comedies. These summer months would often have seen us head for the open air outings at Holland Park Opera, the Proms at Kenwood House and Regents Park Theatre always armed with our obligatory pre-performance picnics (even at the downpour at Marble Hill House Concert, the show went on!)
Art Galleries / Museums of London
The autumnal / winter months would be spent at our favourite art Institutions, The Royal Academy, The V&A, The National Gallery, The British Museum and Tate Britain. As most of us were either members or on ‘friends schemes’ for these institutions we’d venture to most, if not all, the exhibitions that were on offer at these major venues. With such huge collections one could never get tired as you were literally spoilt for choice, although I can say that in my time in London I had managed to visit every gallery / room of the all of the aforementioned institutions.
London’s Contemporary Art Scene However London would also, of course, offer countless opportunities to sample smaller contemporary exhibitions, and not just at the famous Tate Modern but also numerous smaller venues. Within our North London location we’d have easy access to The Victoria Miro Gallery, The Estorick, The Lisson and The Camden Arts Centre whilst a quick tube ride would get us to The White Cube at Hoxton or Whitechapel Gallery. Our trips to the centre were generally restricted to The Serpentine, The Hayward or the ICA (which we also joined), whilst we’d rarely venture south for any other contemporary gallery other than the infamous Tate Modern.
So, with all that London was providing us what would Birmingham offer us after the re-location?
Performance Venues of Birmingham
After moving to Birmingham city centre to set up Lotus Architects, I found myself living and working just yards from The Hippodrome, Birmingham’s main venue for a variety of top attractions ranging from West End Musicals, touring productions of the Welsh National Opera as well as being the home of the relocated Birmingham Royal Ballet. They, like myself, left their North London home to ‘live’ in Birmingham, albeit a few years ahead of myself.
Having terminated my Royal Academy, Tate and ICA memberships my first enrolments came at the great Birmingham Hippodrome and the fantastic Birmingham Royal Ballet which recently won the final ever South Bank Show Award for the dance section. The Hippodrome also houses the Dance Xchange which provides a complex programme of artistic support, education, performances, which with its Patrick Centre venue provides a variety of classic and contemporary dance from Jazz & Hip Hop to Tap Dancing and Capoeira as well including Kathak, Bharatnatyam and Bollywood in its listings.
A further 10 minute walk gives us access the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, now approaching its Centenary, it had continued to be one of the country’s leading theatre companies producing not just classics, but ongoing contemporary productions, on a international as well as a local level. Its neighbour, The Symphony Hall, is considered to be, not only the UK’s finest concert hall, but also one of the best in the world’, providing the perfect location for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s repertoire of classic symphonies as well as recitals of the not-so-famous pieces.
Its sister venue, again just minutes away, is the magnificent classical Town Hall, recently restored to provide an alternative more intimate venue. Its schedules, however, does n’t just restrict itself to classical recitals, but ventures out to encompass an eclectic range of performances from World Music to Comedy, to Rock/Pop to Folk. However, some of popular shows, ranging from Dance to Comedy are also being staged at main Symphony Hall itself to cater for the large audiences.
Nearby we also have the option of walking to The CBSO Centre, home and rehearsal space, of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which provides another cosy venue for recitals, but also houses the BCMG (Birmingham Contemporary Music Group) which is now established as one of the country’s leading exponents of new and contemporary music.
So as you can see that you there 6 major performance venues all within 10 minutes walking distance from where I live, none of which have failed to impress me. However I cannot go without mentioning St Philip’s Cathedral, providing me with free Friday lunchtime classical recitals as well as The Birmingham Oratory and St Pauls Church in the Jewellery Quarter. The last two, not only provide typical recitals but also provide outlets to see regular performances of Birmingham’s own Ex Cathedra Choir.
Although admittedly The Covent Garden Opera House can rarely be matched in terms of quality, however as the recent reviews of the Birmingham Opera Company, revealed that, when it comes to innovation and inventiveness, Birmingham’s own opera company is in a class of its own. A unique company that does n’t have a permanent venue but instead offers distinctive productions in unusual and unconventional locations, such as empty warehouse or derelict factories, seemingly magically transformed to provide thoroughly apt settings for en-promenade productions of Mozart’s King Idonomeneo and Verdi’s Otello.
Outdoor fans are well catered for at the nearby Birmingham Botanical Gardens which annually stages open air productions. The offerings range from the magical Shakespearean fantasies and comedies to traditional fairytale plays, as well as branching out to the classics. All of which can be enjoyed, with the comfort of your picnic hamper, amongst the beautiful tranquil settings of the 15 acres of gardens.
Finally there is a multi-purpose venue which is currently being expanded and due to re-open later this summer and that is The Midland Arts Centre. The expansion will create a new purpose made gallery for national and international visual artists and craft makers, whilst the existing performance theatre and studio both being refurbished to cater for all forms of theatre and dance. The MAC also contains SAMPAD, the Birmingham based development agency for South Asian arts. As well as providing performances by professional artists for our viewing pleasure it is also learning resources centre for the youth and local community.
Fine Art Galleries and Museums of Birmingham
Again within 10mins walk is Birmingham largest museum, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, which I also joined as a friend member. It is also the largest Local Authority Museum in the Country.
It is now 125 years old and houses some 40 permanent galleries as well as two temporary spaces. The museum not only houses fine art paintings in typical chronological displays but also has a huge array of antiquities, coins & medals but has extensive applied art, social history and archaeological & ethnographical collections, making it Birmingham’s answer to the V&A, British Museum and National Gallery.
Some feat but I have yet mention its major attraction, due it the city’s Pre-Raphaelite heritage. This has resulted in amassing the largest ever and most extensive collection of Pre-Raphaelite art works (some 3000), a lot which are often loaned to national and international institutes throughout the globe, making this one of the most important museums in the country.
Furthermore it has a further seven satellite museums, which although not all walkable, range from the 17th Century buildings of Aston Hall and Blakesley Hall to the vast 1.5 hectare site of the huge Museums Collection Centre, holding hundreds of thousands of objects from steam engines to automobiles and sculptures. It is also has affiliations with Sarehole Mill, part of the Birmingham’s Tolkien Trail, as well as Soho House, home of the entrepreneur and industrialist, Matthew Boulton who also founded the Lunar Society here.
However it is with its nearby Museum of the Jewellery Quarter that was recently awarded the accolade, by TripAdvisor, as Europe’s 3rd best free tourist attraction, behind the Pantheon in Rome and the National Gallery in London.
A few minutes drive, nestled within the University of Birmingham is the marvellous Barber Institute of Fine Arts. A real gem of an institute within one of the finest Art Deco Buildings in the Midland (listed Grade II). The collection and the experience has been described as a blend of the Dulwich Picture Gallery& The Courthauld Institute at Somerset House, London. Not only does it contain a fabulous collection of renaissance and 17th to 19th C paintings but it also has an ever growing set of works on paper.
However whilst housing a varied range of sculptures & decorative arts dating from the 14th C up to the 20th C, it is its coin collection which tends to grabs the headlines. The institute boasts one of the finest Byzantine Collection of Coins in Europe totalling 15,000, which unfortunately can’t all be displayed at once. It this was n’t enough to make my membership worthwhile it also offers half price tickets to its musical events. The same building conceals a small yet magnificent concert hall, which is host to the annual Birmingham Early Music Festival, Birmingham Summer Festival and its Summer Festival Opera. In addition to that it provides ongoing lunchtime and evening recitals which range from chamber music and choir to jazz
Contemporary Art Scene of Birmingham
Right in the heart if the city centre, we have the internationally acclaimed Ikon Gallery, now in its 40th year, based inside the Victorian Neo Gothic former Oozels St School. The building contains its main galleries as well as its Learning / Education department, whilst its off-site strand promotes the dynamic relationship of art within its external environment. In recent years it has expanded to a second satellite building to the east of the city centre, an area called Eastside, thus providing the name of Ikon Eastside.
Eastside has rapidly become the creative quarter of the city, not only providing a home for media specialists Vivid, a leading resource for filmmakers & media artists with it equipment hire facilities but also a provider of valuable technical / consultancy advice. Furthermore it permanent gallery continues to provide innovative exhibitions and events, offering internships and residencies and multi-disciplinary collaborative opportunities.
The area has become a hot-bed for artistic presence since the conversion of the former Custard Factory into an enterprise for small arts and media ventures, but also containing gallery spaces such as studio4gallery & Vaad Gallery. The project has been a springboard for small up and coming art institutions in the area, with Grand union, The Lombard Method and The Endless Supply just a handful of the recent establishments which have set up here.
Well at first glance one would have thought that the Second City would struggle indeed with it artistic and cultural heritage when compared to London and to be honest very few second cities, in any nations can claim to match it capital city when it comes to such provisions. However, whilst it may struggle when it comes to the number of venues it offers, as you have read it can easily match London with variety of offerings and has managed to keep an ardent culture vulture like myself content. Within a 15 minute walking radius there is a multitude and wealth of cultural options and if you willing to hop on a bus or settle for a short drive then you have even greater options, so much so that you one almost forgets Hire a choir in London what London use to offer us. Its comes as no surprise to me at least to hear that Birmingham is a finalist (1 of 4 cities) bidding to be the UK’s City of Culture for 2013.