Its exciting and eclectic cultural panoply has made Birmingham one of Europe’s most vibrant cities. Indeed, the place seems to be positively awash with festivals of various types and sizes, some annual, others biennial, some massive, others of a more modest scale. There’s certainly diversity when it comes to themes, with just a brief overview taking in the Midlands Whisky Festival (November), the Rum Festival (July), Caribbean Festival (July), Birmingham Extreme Chilli Festival (September), visual pop culture festival Eye Candy (September/October), Brum Spirit’s annual coming together (September) of musicians and artists from Brazil, Birmingham and the wider world, and LGBT festival Shout (November).
Birmingham City University even has its own event in June, the Inspired Festival shining a spotlight on the work of artists, actors, designers, engineers, writers and musicians who are graduating from the University. Tilt (July) is Birmingham’s first dedicated Aerial & Physical Theatre Festival celebrating high quality teaching and performance from national and international circus artists while the latest additions are Taps Festival (September), a three-day celebration of beer and the Wine, Cheese & Chocolate Festival (October). Plus, of course, there’s the annual German Frankfurt Market in the run-up to Christmas.
Taking a quick look across Birmingham’s music festivals, the annual Moseley Folk Festival takes place the first weekend of September in Moseley Park, 2018’s line up including Steve Harley and The Levellers. The organisers are also responsible for the Mostly Jazz, Funk & Soul Festival, which held its seventh annual event at Moseley Park in July 2018, with an eclectic line-up headlined by Jimmy Cliff. Supersonic, the highly-acclaimed weekend festival of the experimental, the avant-garde and sheer blistering noise takes place in June with a host of names you’ll likely have never heard of.
The same month features Celebrating Sanctuary, a celebration of world music and the city and UK’s refugee musical culture while, taking place in July, perhaps the best known is the recently expanded and rechristened Birmingham, Solihull & Sandwell Jazz Festival. 2019 will mark its 35th year, there’ll be some 200 citywide shows, mostly free, including artists from France, Spain, and Lithuania, again partnered with the CBD Food Festival showcasing the best culinary delights from the Colmore district.
Tilt is Birmingham’s first dedicated Aerial & Physical Theatre Festival celebrating high quality teaching and performance from national and international circus artists while the latest additions are Taps Festival, a three-day celebration of beer and the Wine, Cheese & Chocolate Festival
Theatre and dance
The same month also offers MADE, aka The Metropolitan, Arts & Dance Event, which, in 2017, took place in Perry Park, bringing together electronic music with some of Birmingham’s best visual and street artists, designers, set builders and creatives and musicians. Simmer Down, which pays tribute to reggae and related musical genres, returns to Handsworth Park in August, which is also the month for BASS festival, a celebration of Black Music and Arts. While Digbeth variously hosts Holi Rave festival of colour and, in November, the Digbeth Mela. A free three-day celebration of music, fashion, dance, theatre, art, literature and food based around the city’s central civic squares and shopping district Birmingham Weekender takes place in September.
Turning to theatre, independent theatre companies from Birmingham and Europe come together with performances for July’s BE Festival while, staged at the start of October, the annual Fierce Festival of live art embraces everything from theatre and installation to club night acts and workshops. The biennial International Dance Festival Birmingham is one of the largest dance festivals in the world, bringing all kinds of styles to the city’s theatres, streets and public spaces. One of the longest running comedy festivals in the UK, with a 17-year track record of successfully delivering a very popular annual event, the multi-site Comedy Festival, supported by the Arcadian takes place in October.
Catering for wide diversity of literary tastes, the Birmingham Literature Festival is held in October, this year’s guests including Caitlin Moran, Nigel Slater and Jonathan Coe. However, the city’s biggest and definitely most colourful and exuberant festival is, of course, Birmingham Pride. Following its biggest and most successful event in its 21-year history, 2018’s celebration of LGBT culture with its riotously-extravagant carnival parade took place over the May Spring Bank Holiday weekend and they’ll be doing it all over again in 2019.
The city’s two largest venues, catering for more mainstream events, are the Resorts World Arena, part of the NEC complex, and its sister venue, Arena Birmingham in Broad St. The former recently staged the first one day Shiiine On festival starring Orbital, Happy Mondays and Julian Cope and is home to such prestigious events as the Horse Of The Year Show in October as well as Blue Planet II announced for March 2019 while the latter is set to host such major sporting events as the BBL Cup Final in January and The Original Harlem Globetrotters in May. Meanwhile, the massive NEC exhibition complex itself stages such internationally renowned events as Gardeners World, Crufts, the BBC Good Food Show, Antiques for Everyone, Grand Designs Live and Autosport International.
Turning to theatre, independent theatre companies from Birmingham and Europe come together with performances for July’s BE Festival while, staged at the start of October, the annual Fierce Festival of live art embraces everything from theatre and installation to club night acts and workshops
The silver screen and live performances
Back at Brindleyplace, Symphony Hall is the jewel in the city’s musical crown. One of the world’s finest concert venues, it is also home to one of the world’s finest orchestras, the CBSO. Head up to Victoria Square and you’ll find another world-renowned music venue, the Grade 1-listed neoclassical Town Hall, declared the finest music hall in the country when it opened in 1834. On the jazzier side, there’s life beyond the festivals with Birmingham Jazz, now a volunteer-run organisation, keeping the vibe blowing at the 1000 Trades in the Jewellery Quarter, while, over at St Paul’s Square, the Jam House mixes up jazz, soul and funk.
Fans of the silver screen aren’t forgotten. Curated by the enterprising 7” Cinema, taking place in April, Flatpack Film Festival is the UK’s most innovative festival for independent, short, experimental and archive films while the Black International Film Festival takes place in October. Alongside the ubiquitous multiplexes, Birmingham is well served on the art house circuit by the Midland Arts Centre, the Electric Cinema, the oldest working cinema in the UK, and the three-screen Everyman cinema, situated in the Mailbox. While commercial considerations dictate a degree of mainstream programming, it is at these screens you will find the best in foreign and independent cinema.
For that really BIG screen experience, you’ll find IMAX screens at both Cineworld (Five Ways and Resorts World at the NEC) and the Empire (in Rubery) while Odeon Broadway Plaza Luxe contains Birmingham’s first iSense and reclining seats in all screens. Cineworld at Five Ways also has 4DX where you get to feel, smell and move with the action as well as watch it. Turning to the stage, as well as the main stage, the Birmingham Repertory Theatre features both the Studio Theatre and the smaller The Door, while, in Station St, the Old Rep, the UK’s first purpose-built repertory theatre, continues to stage amateur productions.
Presiding over Hurst St, Birmingham Hippodrome remains the city’s grandest theatre, staging spectacular West End and Broadway musicals as well as the UK’s biggest, most lavish pantomime. Additionally, it hosts heavyweight seasons by Welsh National Opera and is home to the UK’s leading dance company, Birmingham Royal Ballet. Across the way, the New Alexandra Theatre has a reputation as one of the country’s top touring theatres with a programme embracing drama, comedy and evergreen family musicals. Sited in Cannon Hill Park, opposite Edgbaston Cricket Ground’s imposing stand, the Midland Arts Centre (aka the Mac) is acclaimed for its extensive programming and exhibitions. It remains the home of Sampad, the organisation dedicated to the promotion of South Asian art forms, although its work encompasses venues throughout the city.
Fans of the silver screen aren’t forgotten. Curated by the enterprising 7” Cinema, taking place in April, Flatpack Film Festival is the UK’s most innovative festival for independent, short, experimental and archive films while the Black International Film Festival takes place in October
Libraries, museums and galleries
In addition to several thousand books, the Library of Birmingham’s glass and metal filigree extravaganza showcases the city’s internationally significant archives and special collections, including photography and early and fine printing. Visitors can also see classic films, television, documentaries and even home movies from the British Film Institute National Archive. Finally, looking at gallery and exhibition spaces, Digbeth is very much the city’s artist quarter with Eastside presently the largest physical regeneration project in Birmingham. Situated in Heath Mill Lane, Eastside Projects is a free, artist-run public gallery investigating the role of art in an urban environment.
Recent additions to the area include Birmingham artist-led projects Grand Union The Lombard Method, exploring what sporting sub-cultures can tell us about wider society and its systems, values, policies and ideologies. Across in the city centre, in Brindleyplace, the Ikon is one of Europe’s leading and most individual contemporary art galleries with a changing programme of exhibitions and events featuring the best in international and British art.
On a more ‘traditional’ note, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has the largest collection of Pre-Raphaelites in the world and, along with the Stoke Museums, has also acquired the Staffordshire Hoard. The Museum’s Gas Hall Gallery also houses a constantly-changing round of temporary exhibitions. Elsewhere, the Institute of Fine Arts in Edgbaston features an outstanding collection of Old Masters as well as a regular programme of exhibitions while the Jewellery Quarter houses the UK’s second oldest independent art gallery, the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists. Don’t let anyone tell you that the arts, entertainment and culture aren’t all very much alive and well in Birmingham.
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