Arriving early at Birmingham’s RBSA Gallery to see the Annual Exhibition, I was greeted by the new Director, Rachel Dowling-Jones, who has been in post since October. “It’s a wonderful collection of works,” she told me, while placing printed catalogues on the reception desk. This was the first time I had seen a fully illustrated catalogue for this exhibition, and I felt a positive change was in the air.
Taking place over all three floors of the Gallery, the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists’ Annual Exhibition can be traced back throughout its 200-year history, of which Dowling-Jones is “super proud”. As she says, there is “gravitas to the Society. Past presidents have included Edward Burne-Jones, Lord Leighton and Sir John Everett Millais.”
Working closely with the current President, Viv Astling, the new Director is keen to continue celebrating the Society’s heritage by programming archival exhibitions. Not only does the collection hold over 1000 artworks, but boasts great names such as Emmy Bridgwater, David Cox and Joseph Edward Southall.
Dowling-Jones is also committed to the RBSA’s central aim, as an artist-led charity, to “promote and nurture artists.” The Society will continue to offer creative workshops, from ‘Introduction to Linoprinting’ to ‘Painting Still Life in Oils’ and ‘Portrait Drawing from Life’ at its Gallery beginning in February 2024.
Having worked in commercial galleries for over 25 years, the Director brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the role, and I could see that she was already taking a proactive, hands-on approach to it, having been involved in hanging the show with a group of Members. “We are in this together, we are a team”, she explained.
As part of the flagship show, there are over 150 artworks on display by the Society’s Members and Associates, who are given the opportunity to exhibit annually, resulting in an enormously diverse exhibition celebrating the variety of artistic practices associated with the RBSA. This year, there are sculptures, prints, paintings, photographs, drawings, ceramics and more, exploring a variety of contemporary and traditional approaches.
Wandering around the show on opening night, I felt like I was on a treasure hunt, to find what matched my tastes, and budget, as most works are for sale, with prices starting at just £170. Catching my eye was an abstract canvas by Chris Tkacz, also reproduced on the exhibition catalogue cover. Titled ‘The Distance Between Two Blues’, it evokes nature’s patterns, shapes and colours with real lyricism. I’d hang it in my home, if only I had the space.
I was also drawn to an imaginatively layered textile portrait by Imogen Morris, whose style I recognised as I had previously seen her work as part of the RBSA’s Graduate Programme. Targeted towards artists who have graduated within the last 10 years, this important initiative provides them with the opportunity to exhibit work, receive a complimentary three-year membership of the Society, and also receive valuable guidance on the development of their creative practice.
RBSA Graduate Morris proves the impact of supporting emerging talent in Birmingham, and the difference that the RBSA can make to an artist’s career. New for 2024, the RBSA
Gallery will not only give Graduates the opportunity to sell their work but will also introduce student prizes for some of its key exhibitions.
Artists can also hire space at the RBSA Gallery for solo or group shows, as Rita Rodner, Rosalind Stoddart and Sue Kirk have done this year, resulting not only in sales, but great profiling and glowing reviews. Located in the heart of the historic Jewellery Quarter, surrounded by restaurants, bars and shops, it’s the ideal place to stage a commercial exhibition and add a creative’s name to the artmap!
In fact, as I walked around the Annual Exhibition, I saw several red dots already in place, indicating that some sales had been made just a few hours into the show’s opening. I’ve always found the RBSA Gallery to be a welcoming space, rather than an intimidating white cube with pushy sales associates, meaning that anyone can wander in and enjoy exhibitions, which are free and change frequently, and peruse the craft shop.
The RBSA also gives people the opportunity to buy art to hang in their homes, as I have done, selecting graphic prints of Birmingham’s canals by talented Member, Eric Gaskell. This is an ethos that the New Director is keen to keep, and the space will allow collectors to find new artwork to suit their budget and tastes, with “something new on the walls every month.”
As Dowling-Jones says, “the gallery is Birmingham’s best kept secret”. However, it’s now “time to change that”, as the exhibiting artists, as well as the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists itself, deserve greater recognition.
The RBSA’s Annual Exhibition runs until JANUARY 6, 2024. The Society is a charity and does not receive public funding. It relies on membership subscriptions, exhibition entry fees, sales of artwork, sponsorship, legacies, grants and donations, which every visitor can do whilst visiting the Gallery or via the website.