How it all began

In 1964, the artists’ group that founded Ikon published a prospectus that was as clear as it was idealistic. Their aesthetic proposition was neatly summarised:
“Ikon is intended as an antithesis to exclusive art establishments and galleries … [it] has been formed because of the need for an accessible place where the exchange of visual ideas can become a familiar reality.”

Ikon Kiosk
Ikon's glass walled Kiosk


Ikon was first conceived of as a ‘gallery without walls’, a headquarters for a fluid artistic programme touring to non-art venues. In 1965 it took up residence in an octagonal glass-walled kiosk in Birmingham’s brave new Bullring precinct, adjacent to the landmark Rotunda building.

Supported from the beginning by a modest and visionary couple, Angus and Midge Skene, it challenged a conservative local art world. Taking the idea of an ‘ikon’ as a mobile art object focused towards a local audience.

The four artists officially listed as the founders of Ikon – Jesse Bruton, Robert Groves, Sylvani Merilion and David Prentice – were joined by several others in order to help develop and articulate the original vision. They included Peter Berry, Trevor Denning, Dinah Prentice and John Salt.


Jonathan Watkins
1999 – 2022

Elizabeth Macgregor
1989 – 1999

Antonia Payne
1981 – 1989

Hugh Stoddart
1978 – 1981

Simon Chapman
1972 – 1978

Why Ikon?

We had a meeting at Midge and Angus’ in order to decide on a name for the organisation. We all turned up with suggestions, such as “New Birmingham Gallery” and “Image”.

I was particularly interested in Russian or Greek – eastern orthodox – icons, and thought well “Ikon” is a lovely word. It means image and you get a four letter word that divides beautifully geometrically and was splendid in all directions.

It was appropriate (also) because it suggested moving images … When I mooted it the others said “Oh no, no really, no, not having any of that …” After a few more beers everyone else’s suggestions were shot down and they said “Oh well, I suppose it will have to be Ikon then”.
Robert Groves

Robert Groves with icon (1968)


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This short film, produced for Ikon’s 50th anniversary in 2014, is about Ikon’s development from a small artist-led space in the Bullring in the 1960s to its position as an internationally renowned art gallery at the heart of Birmingham’s cultural scene.


Explore Ikon’s history through our digital archive including a specific series of group exhibitions looking back at Ikon’s artistic programme through the lens of a particular decade, to date the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s.


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Ikon Icons: John Salt
Ikon Icons sees the return to Ikon of five key British artists from an exhibition programme that has extended over five decades. John Salt is our Ikon Icon for the 1960s, to be followed by Ian Emes (1970s), Cornelia Parker (1980s), Yinka Shonibare (1990s) and Julian Opie (2000s). A presentation of work by each takes place, consecutively, throughout 2014 in Ikon’s Tower Room.
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Some of the Best Things in Life Happen Accidentally
‘Ikon is intended as an antithesis to exclusive art establishments and galleries … it has been formed because of the need for an accessible place where the exchange of visual ideas can become a familiar reality’. These words ring out of the prospectus for Ikon, published in 1964. They summarise a fundamental proposition that informed the activities of the gallery during its early years, a counteraction to a pervasive cultural conservatism.
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Ian Emes
Ikon Icon 1970s
Ian Emes shows his masterpiece French Windows (1972), dating from his final year as a student at City of Birmingham Polytechnic (now BIAD).
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This Could Happen To You: Ikon in the 1970s
Ikon presented the second chapter in its history; a survey of the artistic programme from 1970 to 1978. This followed the 2004 exhibition Some of the best things in life happen accidentally: the beginning of Ikon. Works by thirty-two artists were displayed throughout the galleries, supplemented by installations at Ikon Eastside and the Pallasades Shopping Centre.
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Cornelia Parker
Ikon Icon 1980s
In 1988 Ikon commissioned Cornelia Parker to make Thirty Pieces of Silver, a major installation now in the collection of Tate. She returns to Ikon to show Thirty Pieces of Silver (exhaled) (2003), a more recent work comprising thirty silver-plated items crushed by a 250 tonne industrial press. A kind of critical response to monumental floor-based sculpture, it also characteristically conflates ideas of preciousness and perceived cultural value with traces of a traumatic event.
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As Exciting As We Can Make It: Ikon in the 1980s
A survey of Ikon’s programme from the 1980s, As Exciting As We Can Make It, is a highlight of our 50th anniversary year. A comprehensive exhibition, including work by 29 artists, it features painting, sculpture, installation, film and photography actually shown at the gallery during this pivotal decade.
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Yinka Shonibare MBE
Ikon Icon 1990s
Yinka Shonibare’s exhibition at Ikon in 1999 was seminal. We now show Five Under Garments and Much More (1995), an early suspended installation that prefigures the artist’s mannequin works. Each piece mimics the structured corsetry of period noble dress but the dramatically enlarged proportions and exuberant textiles suggest a provocative de-robing of social and class constructions.
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A Very Special Place: Ikon in the 1990s
The fourth in a series of surveys of Ikon’s artistic programme, this exhibition is a review of the 1990s. It comprises work by 40 artists who featured in exhibitions at our venue in John Bright Street during 1990-1997, and at Ikon’s current premises in Brindleyplace until 1999.
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Julian Opie
Ikon Icon 2000s
The installation of Julian Opie’s high-rise building sculptures on the first floor of Ikon Gallery in 2001 coincided with 9/11. The modernist aesthetic they embody and their smart neatness as models is now informed by memories of a day that dramatically changed the world. The ‘less is more’ efficiency they suggest, symbolic of a society that functions in an orderly way, can no longer be seen with innocence. A number of these architectural pieces now rise up in Ikon’s Tower Room.


Document Name
History of the building
274.0 kB
Ikon at 50
81.6 kB

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