Thrift Radiates Happiness opens Birmingham's Municipal Bank Building after a decade

By Ben Miller | 13 March 2013

Exhibition preview: Thrift Radiates Happiness, Municipal Bank Building, Birmingham, March 15-17 2013

A photo of a dimly-lit hall
© Julie Tsang
The huge former home of the Municipal, a bank originally imagined by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1915, has been a challenging venue for the team opening it for the first time in a decade.

Contemporary gallery Trove, the Royal Institute of British Architects, Birmingham Architectural Association and international architects Aedas have worked with the city council on the singular building, complete with unreliable lights and wide, dusty corridors, for the three-day arts exposition.

The artists include outlandish Turner Prize nominee Spartacus Chetwynd and photographer Julie Tsang, with backers given the chance to take away exclusive prints in return for a tiny “investment”.

“A key feature of the exhibition is an auction that will take place in the safety deposit room,” reveals curator Charlie Levine, who has a keen interest in wunderkammers and heritage sites.

“Visitors will be invited to invest £2 to receive a random number for a safety deposit box containing a limited edition art print.

“We are assembling an amazing collection of artists for everybody of all ages to enjoy. There will be areas where visitors will listen, watch, study and participate, as well as enjoy the full gravitas of the building itself.”

Levine is collating a series of Tsang’s architectural studies of the bank, mimicking the official catalogue, from 1917, held at the Central Library which is about to become the new Library of Birmingham.

A photo of a warehouse-style space full of empty shelves
© Julie Tsang
“It’s a really ambitious exhibition which will give the public an opportunity to discover a fascinating disused building,” says Head of Photographs Pete James, defining the show partly as “an artistic response to concepts of finance and investment.”

“The connection between Julie’s work and the Library of Birmingham archives underlines our role in both preserving important photography and commissioning new work.”

Carina Schneider, of the Institute, says the collaborative elements of the project are “a masterstroke”.

“It opens a central landmark in the city centre,” she adds.

“By doing that, it breathes life into a piece of urban fabric that has somehow become invisible to passers-by.”

She says forgotten landmarks are “empty gems”. “They can be concert venues, galleries, theatre stages, film screens, dancefloors or debating chambers.

“It alludes to something key to what architecture is partly about – being a purposeful, well-designed frame to be used and enjoyed by people.

“It shapes the experience of the space itself and whatever is happening within it – it forms memories in a place that gives identity and character to a city and its inhabitants.

“Thrift Radiates Happiness gives us food for thought on a very current topic: what is the worth of money, how can we keep providing for arts and our environment, and what role do art and architecture play in providing meaning?”

Having survived four recessions, the venue might be the perfect place for the sort of questions rarely posed within financial quarters.

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