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Middlesbrough, in the northeast of England, was in the 19th century known as Ironopolis – a global centre for the iron and steel industry. Now, it is concentrating on more artistic uses of metal as it seeks to build a worldwide reputation as a centre for contemporary jewellery.
Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (Mima), which opened in 2007, is home to a nationally important jewellery collection, until now mostly hidden away in storage. But this year the institute will launch a £430,000 project to create its first permanent exhibition space for public access to the collection.
Mima hopes the move will put Middlesbrough on the map as the UK centre for contemporary jewellery and a hub for international research.
“There are not many jewellery collections of this nature in this country,” says Kate Brindley, director of Mima. “The [London-based] V&A and the Crafts Council have them but, other than that, in the regions we’re very significant.”
Last year Mima received a £299,000 grant from Arts Council England over two years to increase exhibition space and enhance understanding of contemporary jewellery. It also attracted funding of £118,500 from Teesside University, which will take over governance of the gallery from Middlesbrough Council this summer.
Work is under way to convert an existing storeroom into a 120 sq m permanent gallery with display areas for up to 100 pieces of jewellery. There will be storage for the rest of the collection, which spans the 1970s to the present day and features top European makers, with staff on hand to open drawers so visitors can look at items not on show. The new space is scheduled for completion in July before the launch in October.
Pieces from Mima’s collection, which covers jewellery, ceramics and art, are currently displayed on rotation or available to view by appointment. Ms Brindley says that, while it was not planned that Dutch architect Erick van Egeraat’s building would house a permanent gallery, the organisation has decided a permanent presence is important because people feel “quite bereft” that the collection is not always available.
“We were able to do it with the jewellery because it’s quite a discrete collection,” she says. “It’s only just over 200 items so it meant we felt we could do justice to it in that space.”
Teesside University is funding a jeweller in residence role. Gemma Draper and Janet Hinchliffe McCutcheon, the current post-holders, split their time between developing the gallery’s new permanent display, and working on new courses for the university. It is intended that the collection will become a teaching resource. This year, Mima will put out a call for papers for its first international conference on contemporary jewellery, to be held with the university in 2015.
The gallery’s collection is continually expanding; the latest acquisition is the German designer Mi-Ah Rödiger’s headpiece, Crown Jewel. Other featured artists include the Dutch jewellers Felieke van der Leest and Ted Noten, and Italy’s Giovanni Corvaja, whose gold bracelet, is its most valuable piece.
“It’s interesting that some of the makers we have in the collection, people might not know their names but they are artists that have made some very important and significant pieces that people would know,” says Ms Brindley. “So for instance, David Watkins designed the 2012 Olympic medal. Lin Cheung designed the Paralympic medal, and Wendy Ramshaw created the Millennium Medal for the Queen. Madeleine Albright [the former US secretary of state] collects Gijs Bakker.
“Some of these people might not be household names, but when people see the objects, things may start to gel in that they recognise a familiar style or image.”
Joanna Hardy, author of Collect Contemporary Jewelry and a specialist on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, says that, unlike contemporary art, the jewellery market is “still quite an undiscovered territory”. “And yet, in my experience when I’ve exposed potential buyers to it, they get incredibly excited and think, ‘Wow, this is fantastic – where can I buy it?’ ”
Ms Hardy says people are looking to own something original and well made, but that contemporary jewellery is “very difficult to find” despite there being talented makers.
“People are seeing it as the way forward although it is, I think, still relatively in its infancy,” she adds, “but places like this [Mima] having contemporary jewellery on permanent display [will be] hugely beneficial to the contemporary jewellery world, and that’s very exciting.”
Dauvit Alexander, a director of the Association for Contemporary Jewellery and a jeweller himself, says the project is a welcome development for the industry.
“Anything that raises the profile and makes people realise that jewellery doesn’t have to come from [high street chain] Mappin & Webb ... that jewellery goes beyond the engagement ring, is wonderful,” he says.