Jonathan Watkins leans back, folds his arms and crosses his legs before searching his mind for an artist suitable for articulating his point, looking at you through those dark-rimmed and impossibly circular glasses, glasses that have aided the eyes that have overseen the development of Ikon Gallery throughout the last 20 years.
Twenty years. Twenty years that have seen crashes and spending cuts, twenty years that have been witness to artist collectives and spaces inevitably losing their funding, twenty years that have seen Birmingham’s artistic community steadily flourish. For whatever reason, Ikon has always remained steadfast and resolute, championing the progressive and the innovative in the second city, unshackled from the constraints of local authority approval and able to move as quickly as a contemporary art gallery should. Since his arrival at Ikon from Surrey via Sydney, France, the Serpentine, and Chisenhale, Jonathan has found himself in a situation where wherever he goes, he takes Ikon with him.
A figurehead, then? Protector of the contemporary art flame? Mr. Birmingham, I presume? Maybe, but he is certainly at the helm of a gallery onto which much of the world’s eyes are transfixed. They now initiate shows and send them on tour, rather than the touring shows coming there, and as a result they unearth the artists they want to and give a platform to those often denied a voice. But every gallery everywhere puts exhibitions on in its white cubes, what Watkins was immediately keen to do was make sure Ikon wasn’t just doing that.
He refuses a tea on account of the fact that he has some sparkling water leftover, the bottlecap of which, alongside a stray paperclip, provides a constant source of entertainment for the restless fingers of Jonathan Watkins. It, surprisingly, does not get annoying, and is punctuated whenever he leans forward and clasps his hands together, stressing whatever point that deserves attention beyond the fusion of a paperclip and a bottlecap. These points are stressed in his unplaceable accent, eminently polite, a kind of ‘Surrey drawl’, possibly affected by the series of places he has travelled to and lived in.
As soon as he assumed the director’s position, he sought to push the gallery outside of its own walls. Off-site, off-site, off-site, those events you see on ‘what’s on’ leaflets and forget as soon as you put them down, Watkins stresses that these are essential to the role that Ikon plays in the city. An engagement with the community, an ability to immediately respond to current events, and a sense of responsibility to the city that gave him Ikon fuel this constant and prolific stream of events and exhibitions that enrich its cultural landscape. You may not go to them, but they are always happening, all year, keeping Ikon local despite its international pedigree. This grounding in its surroundings illustrates Watkins’ assertion that a gallery can’t only be international and global, that it must recognise that it is somewhere, comes from somewhere, is a part of a local environment as much as it is included in a worldwide conversation.
This internationality strives to be truly and totally international. Not to set off the snore alarm but representation really matters. Indigenous voices matter. Upcoming shows shine the spotlight on the Canadian First-Nation photographer Meryl McMaster and Judy Watson, an aboriginal artist. Where these voices would have been included in group exhibitions elsewhere, grouped into and defined by their identity, at Ikon these individual artists are given their own shows, standing out as leaders in their field. What’s more, all those artists that deserve a platform are on Jonathan’s radar, having worked with, been mentioned or introduced to him on the countless art-world happenings he has presided over. The biennales and triennales bleed into each other, the pavilions of pedigree stack up, the amorphous mass of things he’s done grants him this network of innovative and exciting artists, many of whom have featured in Ikon exhibitions over the last twenty years.
Forming these connections is important to Jonathan, and treating them like they’re f …
No, family’s too strong a word …
Being familiar with these artists is important, enabling their expression becomes a more worthwhile pursuit. Whilst discussing the artists that have made particular impressions on him, Watkins finds the corresponding exhibition catalogue, collection of their work, monolithic coffee-table book related to their practice, and the pile of books between us climbs higher and higher, their names and impact recalled with considerable ease. Through this familiarity with a wide range of artists, Ikon’s programme provides reward and continuity for regular visitors and guests, mapping the connections between past shows and present exhibitions, a sense of progress and evolution grows as you attend more and more exhibitions inside the walls of the gallery.
The bookshelf in his office is returned to again and again, constantly being thumbed through and searched, and is probably worth a considerable amount of money (so he says), such is the pedigree and acclaim the exhibitions have gathered over the years. There are myriad anecdotes and stories and connections and meanings connected to every publication, this exhibition is a response to this book which in turn inspired these artists to create this work which I commissioned for this event or biennale or triennale or exhibition, across the world, throughout his career. This catalogue of his career here swells in comparison to the record of the years prior to his appointment, something he is keen to rectify through producing decade-at-a-time publications of Ikon’s history, packed with key shows, events, personal disputes and triumphs, a celebration of a storied institution despite its relatively short life.
Just as Jonathan has a foot in both the local and international aspects in the gallery, there is also a focus on honouring the past of Ikon whilst pushing it into the future. At the same time as that major documentation of the history of the gallery is being undertaken, they are planning ahead like never before, well into 2021 and beyond. In the case of the former, this is born out of a need to appreciate and understand how the institution has found its place in the world, how it has established its reach, and the people who made this possible. As such, these figures are being honoured; the founders of the gallery are celebrated in Watkins’ office, their artwork dotted along its four walls, which is particularly poignant after a substantial period of the gallery forgetting these pivotal individuals. This is part of a campaign to ‘right some wrongs’ that had occurred in the institution’s history, a campaign to reconnect with the core values and ideas of those who founded it. Reconnection is once again present in the upcoming exhibition of pioneering Brummie artist John Walker, the first to show at Ikon’s New Street gallery in 1972, but of his new work, there is no looking back in the art that will be presented.
This freedom to show what they wish, to exhibit people and ideas and art that they deem essential to the city or the political situation or to right those wrongs is partially enabled by the fact that the gallery has no permanent collection to be tied to. No institutional legacy to answer to and be accountable for, shackle-free, afforded the luxury of three spaces to do almost anything with, there is always potential for vitality within those whistle-clean pure white exhibition spaces.
My tea has long since been finished, the hour allotted to our conversation coming to an end, some important person-or-other to meet bookends the interview, who is to be treated to the book of Ikon’s latest exhibition. It’s much nicer to have something physical, Jonathan believes, to hold and feel and actually have a curated and carefully chosen collection of work printed and bound as beautifully as possible. It’s personal, it’s gestural, it’s just better than a google image collection. And that’s it, I’m taken out of the office and shown out via the central nervous system of the gallery, past it’s spiral staircases and bookshelves and computers and senior members of staff, sharing a few awkward waves and some enthusiastic small talk, before a final handshake and the door closes behind me.
Jonathan Watkins and Ikon are looking forward and taking the past with them. Fusing the two into what we see before us today, names we’ve never heard of next to names we may struggle to pronounce, but art that will leave an impression on us and that may lodge those names in our brains for good. Pushing into the future without losing sight of the past, representing worldwide while refusing to forget its location in that world. International and local. The unknowable and the known. Connected and disparate. It’s all here in Birmingham, inside and outside of the gallery walls. Wherever Watkins goes, he takes Ikon with him; for us, it is always here.