Review: The Mac’s Back

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Updated on June 1st, 2010

front mac

Following a two year absence from the Midlands arts scene and a £15m make-over, the Mac (Midlands Arts Centre) has reopened in Birmingham. Wedged between Cannon Hill Park and Edgbaston Cricket Ground, the Mac has long been a quirky mixed bag of arts activity and cultural outreach that tends to bring out the best of Birmingham. This distinct character seems to have been carried forward in the Mac’s new guise which has seen refurbishment and a 40% extension of the former buildings.

As one of the first arts environments I ever became familiar with, the Mac is a facility which I have always felt a certain connection to. In the pre-refurbishment years I’d come for the films and the occasional show but it was becoming increasingly clear that the building could no longer provide for the demands of a 21st century arts organisation.

Architecturally the new Mac is modern, uncomplicated and reserved – refreshingly, this isn’t a place that is trying to wow people into visiting. The front approach now spans the River Rea and this reconnection with the surrounding environment is a characteristic which has been embraced in several parts of the building’s design. Years ago the dim galleries and fortress-like architecture seemed completely separate to the vivid activity of the park outside. Today the two are far more connected, with light streaming into open spaces and people on park benches enjoying food from the new café.

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A crucial upgrade to the Mac is the creation of a dedicated gallery space which provides a high quality double-height space for art exhibitions, installation and video. The centre will also continue to provide theatre performances, music, comedy, children’s theatre, literature and poetry events, films and dance performances.

The building’s capacity for hosting a variety of arts workshops has been extended, allowing a programme of 130+ workshops a week to be sustained. Workshops cover visual arts, digital media, sonic art and professional development.

A welcome addition is the introduction of a flexible Artist Pass Scheme which offers affordable access to the visual arts, design, music and dance studios. Application forms can be downloaded from the Mac website or can be picked up from the centre from June to be submitted by Friday 9th July 2010.

Public Art


As part of the redevelopment, several artists were commissioned to create work that engages with the mac’s environment and audiences. Two permanent works and three temporary projects were developed (info from


Artist Myfanwy Johns worked with members of the Bosnian Cultural Centre Midlands to create designs for the first floor carpets. She also developed an area of wood panelling in the new café and floor tiles in the foyer.

The designs are based on the geometric shape of the hexagon, which makes a connection between the name of the theatre at the mac and the geometric form widely used in Islamic and Bosnian traditional crafts such as carpet weaving, crochet, embroidery and wood carving. The translation of ‘Sijelo’ is a word used to describe a social gathering where a craft based activity usually takes place.

Myfanwy and the group held regular get-togethers where they cut paper shapes and crocheted patterns. Scans of the designs were then manipulated into a series of designs and the merit of each was discussed. The paper-cuts and crochet used many influences for their shapes including the lily flower a Bosnian historic symbol. The carpets were woven by Brinton’s in Kidderminster

50 Tiles

50 Tiles is a collective of tiles developed by Sara Taylor to represent the 50 years since the Mac vision was first introduced. The basis of the design structure is formed from geometric shape and pattern, with a distinct 1960’s influence.

Inspiration is taken from tile formations created by tile designer, William De Morgam, Traditional Islamic Patterns and Geometric Ornamentation as well as the abundance of trees situated within Cannon Hill Park. Image and colour placement is a very important part of the design process and each tile design is evolved through a rigorous development process.

Amplifying the Map

Kate Chapman and Charlotte Goodwin invited people who live, work or play close to the Mac to re-discover familiar places and explore places they have never visited before, sharing their thoughts and observations to create an audio map of the changing landscape.

Recordings are being made before, during and after the opening of the Mac to create an audio map – a web of downloadable audio tracks focusing on different locations in a mile radius of Cannon Hill Park.

By walking between these locations and listening to the audio tracks people are able to tune in to the park, to the changing thoughts, observations and reflections of the people who pass through it and who subconsciously respond to its changing landscape.

Time and Place

This participatory work culminates in a visual telling of the story of the Mac and the significant presence it has within Cannon Hill Park. The work and the resulting publication aims to gather information, paraphernalia and public recollections relating to the Mac and Cannon Hill Park from various sources to form a creative archive of the area’s history.

Through a public blog, interviews and participatory workshops the project discusses the notions of heritage and memory with the aim of forming a more complete story of the Mac, its users and the surrounding park.

Artist Laura Guy used walking as her primary research method, taking photographs and making observations. The journeys that are made as part of the project can be seen here.

As part of the project there were printing workshops in the park led by Laura Guy and a professional screen printer. The workshops encouraged participants to make designs based on natural patterns found in Cannon Hill Park with a choice of making a screen printed poster, t-shirt or canvas bag to take away.

The City Sings

Produced by Artmusic, The City Sings is an anthem for the Mac that is played and sung by people from all backgrounds and of all ages.

Composer Helen Ottaway worked with professional and amateur musicians and with the communities of Birmingham to produce a multi-layered work involving music, sound, video and text. The different elements of the project were played, rung and sung across the city before coming together in a live performance to launch the new building. The project was launched with a performance by Trevor Workman on the Bournville Carillon in August 2009.

Part Two of The City Sings was performed in a mass participation, ‘flashmob’ style event on the Chamberlain Square beach at Birmingham’s ArtsFest. Photos from the event can be seen here and a video can be viewed here.


One Response to “Review: The Mac’s Back”

  1. Linda Winnett says:

    This is the first time I have interacted with the Longhouse Site. I was interested in the Mac’s Back article. I would agree that it has a new vibrancy through its refurbishment and its embracing of the surrounding environment and the rich diversity of culture, which has always been at the heart of the Mac. It will be interesting to see how it is used by the public and the programme of events it will host in the future.

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