Birmingham: Forgotten Arts City?

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In London-centric Britain most cities get mocked, derided or just plain forgotten. And poor old Birmingham manages to suffer from all three. Yet it is the second largest city in the country with an incredibly young, multicultural population and perhaps surprisingly to those not in the know, a blossoming arts scene. As part of our series on living arts on the ground, Searchlight Arts investigate some of the initiatives taking place… and how they are impacting the next generation of Brummies.

“The Birmingham arts scene is a very well kept secret,” says Tommy Nagra, Head of Business Development, at BBC Birmingham. “Arts and culture have a rich tradition here in the Midlands. [But] one of the really interesting things about Birmingham is its youth and diversity. 40% of the population is under 25, 40% are non-white and I think there are real opportunities for people to make the most of those opportunities.”

“One of the challenges for arts organisations is engaging those disconnected groups,” he continues. “[However] in Birmingham there is a real opportunity for us to do that and galvanise the whole arts centre here.” And that is exactly what seems to be happening, driven by both small-scale grassroots groups and larger, more established organisations.

Take the Birmingham Rep Theatre for example. This recently celebrated its centenary, has nurtured some pretty prodigious talent over the decades and is arguably one of the most exciting theatres in Britain, with a long standing commitment to new writing. Steve Ball, Associate Director, describes its strategic priorities as “new work, young people and cultural diversity.”

This covers a raft of creative ideas that aim to take theatre into the outer fringes of the city. This has included Open House, tagline “theatre made especially for babies”, which Ball describes as an experience “where every baby born in two [Birmingham] hospitals in Birthday week, February 2013, was given a free theatre experience every year for the first 10 years of their lives. So this cohort of babies is growing up with the theatre.”

It has also factored in wider city schemes, such as the pairing with individual arts organisations with specific suburbs. “We’re working alongside the Foundry [the Rep’s annual programme for emerging theatre talent],” explains Ball. “And we’ll be asking the residents of Erdington [the area the Rep is partnered with] “to tell us what they’d like a play to be about. It will then be performed in their own homes. [This means] 12 Erdington residents will get a piece of theatre in their living room.”

“There is something exciting happening about the relationship that a building-based theatre like the Rep has today, compared to what it had 20 years ago. I think it is a much more dynamic, interactive relationship. We use the community for inspiration for our work as much as they are – hopefully – inspired by what we have on our three stages.”

There is a clear synergy between the aims of this long established organisation and those of small-scale people initiatives that are springing up on the ground. One interesting catalyst for all this has been social enterprise, Beatfreeks which launched in January 2013 and seeks to engage young people through the arts.

Anisa Haghdadi, the 24-year old CEO is extremely positive about what she is seeing: “Talk about bringing colour. [The landscape is] so vibrant, it’s practically pulsating, and you can feel it. It’s almost a subculture at the moment, but it feels like it’s pounding up against the mainstream [and] on that tipping edge. [Now] there are a lot of the larger arts organisations starting to take notice. The grassroots are starting to work with the bigger players to create this middle ground section, where a lot of change can happen.”

“So [there are] lots more young people getting up and doing stuff,” she continues. “Poetry has become cool again – which is amazing. There is a whole culture around spoken word, poetry… [while] political and socially driven art is huge right now. I think there is [also] a lot more integration and a lot more of a focus on collaboration – whether that’s between art forms or between organisations. It’s [definitely] less siloed than it has been, which I think is really progressive, but there’s still a long way to go.”

Beatfreeks is also changing the landscape in its own way through some very unusual consultancy work. “A very recent example,” says Haghdadi “is we’re working with the National Trust. We got a brief from Croome Court in Worcestershire. There’s a whole debate around whether Capability Brown is a visionary or a vandal because of what he did to the space, so we have taken that as a brief and created a treatment to it.”

“So what that looks like is: we’ve commissioned six young poets to write a slam. Three of them are arguing that he’s a visionary and three of them are arguing that he’s a vandal. We’ve [also] got some musicians and we’re taking a coach of a hundred young people down to Croome Court for a complete takeover of the space… an artistic invasion if you will.”

On top of being loads of fun and giving a voice to often disenfranchised young people, the arts can also bring real hope and meaning in difficult economic times. Richard Burden, the Labour MP for Northfield, a white working class area of the city that was decimated by the closure of the MG Rover car plant in 2005, explains how this has played out in his constituency:

“Out of that feeling of what is the future for that area and what does life mean for us, you’ve had some really interesting stuff happening in the area of art. And perhaps the person who personifies it most is Giovanni Esposito. He worked in a paint shop in Longbridge car plant and was one of those who lost his job when the company went under in 2005.”

“Now he is one of Birmingham’s foremost slam poets. He does work in schools and elsewhere… and he talks about his experience and the experiences of people like him. And he very much relates to the new generation coming through.”

Giovanni Esposito, more commonly known as Spoz, is former Poet Laureate for Birmingham, a passionate Brummie and does a range of work around the city. He tells us his decision to move to full-time poet was “kind of done for me” because “I wouldn’t be doing this if the place hadn’t closed. I got the kick up the backside I really needed… because I was too spineless to do it myself.”

In the almost decade he has been working full-time in the Birmingham arts scene he has seen it go from “strength to strength.” The trouble is “young people don’t really realise that you can make a living out of the arts. You can make a living doing what you enjoy. And if the opportunities aren’t there you can make your own opportunities.”

“I think opportunities are what you make of them and I think there are creative opportunities,” agrees Tommy Nagra of the BBC. “Are there more than there were? I don’t know. But actually, I think where the action is going to be is in growth: the next generation of coders and people who are making content for the mobile phone, tablets, creating apps.”

“I think that the definition of what is creative has changed. So some people wouldn’t say that coding, or creating an app is creative… but actually it is,” he continues, “and that’s where I think the growth and the potential and the opportunities are, rather than what we would traditionally call the creative industry for theatre or television or radio.”

“The creative sector is the only sector where jobs went up in during the recession,” concludes Haghdadi. “It’s huge and it can affect lots of things. You can have artists lobbying governments about policy for young people [and other] things like that. [But] it’s just not recognised beyond the entertainment side.”

Birmingham may be just one city in the UK. But what makes it significant is it has an extremely young, diverse community now emerging into a thriving new grassroots arts scene. This is fed by both the top down organisations and more ordinary-people-focused initiatives. But contrary to popular opinion, this isn’t just about entertaining people on a Friday night…

The arts offer a whole new avenue for civic pride in disenfranchised communities. They show the different perspectives of the varied, multicultural citizens. And they give a voice and potential employment opportunities to many people who didn’t previously have either. This means, at the very least, Britain’s kicked underdog of a second city, Birmingham, helps to showcase the wider, restorative benefits of the arts in society.

First published on Searchlight Magazine Arts…

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