Farewell to Ikon – Jonathan Watkins, Director

Twenty-three years on, it is with strong mixed emotions that I announce my stepping down as the Director of Ikon in October. It is a job I’ve loved – more and more, in fact – but a still small voice is telling me that now is the right time to strike out in pursuit of new adventures.

My next exhibition at Ikon, Carlo Crivelli: Shadows on the Sky, opens later this month and has been made possible by the inaugural Ampersand Foundation Award, a very generous amount made available for the realisation of a curatorial dream – in my case, one nursed since I was a student – and so, in a way, I am closing a circle. Also, my recent survey of Ikon in the 1990s completes a decade-by-decade history of the gallery up until the time of my directorship and, well, the idea of going on to review my own programme in the same way might seem self-indulgent!

The title of the 90s show was A Very Special Place. It was taken from a policy document drawn up prior to Ikon’s move to its current premises, but also it summed up my own feelings about an organisation that I have been very privileged to lead. The ethos of those artists who founded Ikon in 1964, striking a balance between excellence and accessibility still holds true thanks to the extraordinary contributions subsequently made by hundreds of people who have joined in as staff, board members, stakeholders and other supporters, and artists above all.

When I arrived at Ikon, many people asked me how I could swap the idyllic landscape of the Loire Valley for post-industrial Birmingham. “Ikon” was an easy answer, as the gallery was already held in high esteem. But then it began to dawn on me how much Ikon was a product of Birmingham, a very friendly city, as unpretentious as it is ambitious, super-diverse with a distinct cultural richness. Ikon is at once locally engaged – to be otherwise would be negligent – and internationalist in outlook, and what could be more appropriate for such a dynamic metropolis. In short, I couldn’t be more thankful to Birmingham for having me.

Our local audiences have been rightly proud of artists hailing from Birmingham who we have shown, such as Hurvin Anderson, Vanley Burke, Ruth Claxton, John Walker, Gillian Wearing and Osman Yousefzada, whilst being inquisitive about those from elsewhere, ranging from emerging artists such as Marjolijn Dijkman and Nástio Mosquito to more established figures such as Francis Alÿs, Beatriz Milhazes, On Kawara and Giuseppe Penone. Cultural differences have not just been respected, they have been enjoyed. Likewise, our impulse to be active beyond dedicated art spaces with a dynamic off-site programme that has featured, amongst many others, Barry Flanagan, Katharina Grosse, Tadashi Kawamata and Cornelia Parker, also including activities on board our canal boat crewed by young people and inside HMP Grendon, where artists-in-residence, Edmund Clarke and Dean Kelland, have conjured up the most extraordinary creativity.

There have been innumerable collaborations, locally, nationally and internationally, that have considerably enhanced Ikon’s profile. They have developed alongside an extramural career that has seen me working as a curator for various biennials and triennials in ways that have informed my work at the gallery, providing invaluable insights into different kinds of artistic communities. I look forward to continuing in this vein after I leave in October, consulting where appropriate, and having more time to write and to make exhibitions as a freelance. There is lots to do!

Meanwhile, Ikon is an organisation stronger than ever as it emerges from these interesting times, continuing to provide free entry to all exhibitions whilst being financially resilient. My successor will have the pleasure of working with a team of people who could not be more committed, professional and personable, in a city that could not be more welcoming. I wish them well.

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