Huge new-look Birmingham Mac set for grand opening

By Culture24 Staff Published: 28 April 2010

A photo of a plan for the outside of a large new galleries with trees and greenery in the foreground

Opening: Mac, Birmingham, May 1 2010

When it was founded by a former chemist with an extra-curricular affection for all things arty in 1962, the Midlands Arts Centre for Young People aimed to be a permanent theatrical stronghold in Birmingham.

Granted an 8.6-acre site in the serene setting of the city's Cannon Hill Park, it had a resident professional theatre company and one of the UK's only full-time puppet companies. It went on to train the likes of Tony Robinson, give Mike Leigh some of his first experiments in improvisation, become a centre for leading South Asian arts agency Sampad and attract 500,000 visitors a year, but its success meant it eventually outgrew its dilapidated buildings.

When it reopens on Saturday for the first time in two years, it will boast 19 art studios, three theatres and a cinema in a beautifully modern, light and airy space, marking the triumphant realisation of a 13-year, £15 million vision.

A black and white photo of a large stone building

Mac's first building, Foyle House, as it looked when it opened in 1964

"In the past, our exhibition spaces were a converted toilet block and a converted boardroom," says Artistic Director Dorothy Wilson, conceding that the old spaces "didn't really lend themselves immediately to installations".

"It was hugely frustrating. There was a critical point at which everybody accepted that the buildings, after 45 years or so, were pretty much worn out." Doing nothing, she says, was "not an option." "As soon as we reached that point, everybody's been on the same page."

Wilson's tenacity and nous has played a pivotal part in the plan since she joined in 1998, but she has refreshingly positive things to report about the "painstaking but not painful" process.

"It's quite challenging because we are on a site which is restricted because of the covenant on the land, which was given to the city 200 years ago, but people just said 'that's a challenge, we need to sort out how we can resolve that', rather than saying 'we can't do it'.

"The place is so loved and so many generations have used it for so long. All I've heard since we announced the launch is 'what time are you opening the doors?'"

A black and white photo of the inside of a gallery showing a woman on reception and stairs leading up to exhibition space

The original reception in Foyle House, showing the exhibition area upstairs

Designed for accessibility and wi-fi enabled to bring it bang up to date, it kicks off with Plug-in, an exhibition charting Birmingham’s past from the industrial to the digital age.

"We've been out there on the streets for the past few months tracking down everybody's favourite Brummie sounds," says Wilson.

"You've got your obvious ones – you know, your Edward Elgar, Ozzy Osbourne, Robert Plant, but you've also got your happening young musicians on the web. It's about getting people to participate."

A "Word Cloud" – ordering a whirl of words sized to reflect their appeal in a public vote to find the most popular gems from local dialect – has taken up an entire wall.

"They keep saying to me 'why eleven?'" says Wilson. "It's the largest word on the cloud...the number eleven bus route."

A photo of the inside of a spacious modern gallery with two levels and two people standing on the ground level

The interior of the new-look Mac

Others are a tad less decipherable, including bab – "a local term of affection" – and gambol, the word for somersault which a quick Google search will tell you is the acid phraseology test of a true Brummie.

For all the local idiosyncrasies it should cherish, Mac can also now afford to be globally ambitious, planning visiting exhibitions from the Hayward Gallery and a programme concocted in "a much more defined and deliberate way", according to Wilson.

"It's turned out better than I envisaged," she says. "We made every penny tell, and the budget management was so good that we managed to actually add a number of dimensions. It's just been a huge pleasure all round, to be honest."

She expects the opening to be a real celebration. "I feel quite humble actually," she admits.

"Every time I show someone around they're so enthusiastic, because they've missed the place. That's a real privilege. I just hope the weather's good on Saturday. Even if it isn't, we'll be mobbed."

Check out the full opening weekend programme online.

All images © Mac

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