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Art school draws on past strengths.

Byline: Terry Grimley

It says something for the affection Moseley Road Art School retains for its former pupils that 550 of them turned up last Sunday, 27 years after its closure.

The reunion, which brought people back to Balsall Heath from as far away as Texas, Toronto, Vancouver, Australia and New Zealand, coincided with the launch of an art exhibition to raise funds for the repair of the 102 year-old Grade II* listed building.

The project, launched by an association of former pupils which has mushroomed over the last year, aims to support the restoration of the exterior of the building, which presents an ever more dismal and dilapidated sight to passers-by on the Moseley Road.

The brickwork is seriously eroded, the decorative stonework clinging on through little more than force of habit, and the collapsing, typically Arts and Crafts-style rain goods are storing up future damp problems. It was seeing this spectacle which finally provoked Graham Collins, who left the school in 1963, to see if he could do something about it.

'All I've done is facilitated and channelled the energy,' he says. 'The more this place deteriorates, the more I feel inspired by it. People have a lot of affection for the building because of what it gave them.'

Opened in 1901, the school was part of Birmingham's expanding network of art education. The architect was WH Bidlake, one of the finest exponents of Birmingham's Arts and Crafts style who designed two of the city's 18 Grade I listed buildings, both churches.

For a manufacturing city, art and design had a practical contribution to make to local prosperity, as the balanced figures of Art and Industry on the magnificent civic coat of arms displayed across the road on Moseley Road Baths indicate.

The school offered three-year courses to secondary age children, with entry at 12/13 giving a second bite of the cherry for children who failed the 11-plus. By the end of its life the range of courses on offer, spanning drawing and painting, modelling, technical drawing, metalwork, stencilwork and the kind of skills needed by Edwardian decorators, had a somewhat quaint look.

Nevertheless, former pupils included two notable contemporary British painters who emerged in the 1960s, the abstract painter John Walker, now based in New York, and the Pop Artist Peter Phillips. Like other art schools it also contributed to the roll-call of British pop music, its alumni including Roy Wood, Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac and members of UB40, whose Brian Travers opened the exhibition on Monday. The school succumbed to Labour's comprehensive revolution in 1976, but not without a fight.

'There was a massive campaign by pupils and staff,' Graham Collins recalls. 'One of the pupils, Naomi Beckett, organised a sitin at the school and led a march from school to council house. Today she teaches children with learning difficulties in Manchester.'

Despite the protests, the school closed. For a few years it was used as an adult education centre, but at the beginning of the 1980s it was locked up and left to await its fate, someone apparently having overlooked the fact that because of the high water table the basement needed to be pumped dry.

In 1984 the city sold the school and its increasing maintenance problems for a nominal sum to the British Association of Muslims, a local charity, which was looking for a community building.

'It was a totally dilapidated, run-down building, a total wreck,' recalls Javed Arain, the association's vice-chairman. 'The roof was in a very bad condition, with holes, and the basement was under three feet of water and had been for a long time. 'The first thing we did was replace the roof. We didn't get any help from anyone, apart from a very little help from the city council. Just peanuts, basically.

'That cost us a lot of money, and then we started renovating the interior and had a new heating system put in. After we had done all the repairs the building started drying out and dry rot spread like wildfire. We didn't know anything about it until one of the ceilings started to fall down.

'I'm probably an expert on dry rot now. We have spent over pounds 350,000 on the building and that's basically been through the contributions and generosity of members and well-wishers. We haven't had any help from any institutions.

'Our priority was to get the building water-tight and useable. We agree the outside is in a totally dilapidated state but that wasn't really a priority.'

Several attempts to attract grants to tackle the exterior have been turned down, and Mr Arain says the association became very frustrated. It is particularly unfortunate, he says, that people assume a Muslim organisation is careless of the city's heritage because they have not seen the work which has been done inside.

'All the people who enter the building are pleasantly surprised, because they think the interior will be as dilapidated as the outside,' says Graham Collins, whose own frustration at the external appearance eventually led him to confront the owners. 'After listening to Javed's story I said 'How can we work together?'. We talkedabout what might be and I explained that I had just attended a soiree where there had been a small reunion of eight people.

'Within three months we had the first reunion and we had 420 people turn up. It was rewarding in many ways, to witness people who hadn't clapped eyes on each other for 40 or 50 years. Lots of tears were shed, and it was a very emotional day.

'I hadn't really decided what to do, but I then got permission from Javed Arain to borrow the building for three weeks to hold the exhibition. I'm delighted to say we aimed to get 100 works and we've got 140. I'm absolutely overwhelmed by the gestures of goodwill we've had. We've been given pounds 100 worth of signs and display equipment that would normally have cost pounds 9,000.'

Meanwhile the British Association of Muslims has engaged leading conservation architect Rodney Melville, whose other projects have included Compton Verney and Birmingham Town Hall, to come up with a restoration scheme.

With such expertise on board and the backing of the new former pupils' association, it is difficult to see why a bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund for such an important building should not succeed.

'We are confident that if we get the support of English Heritage and the city's conservation department, and I don't see any reason why not, there is no reason why in one or two years' time the building won't be back to its original state,' says Mr Arain.

The collaboration between past pupils and present owners could bear fruit in one other respect: there are already discussions about reintroducing art classes to the building.

The Spring Exhibition of Works for Sale by Former Pupils of Moseley Road Art School is on view at the school until Sat May 31 (daily 10.30am-4pm; Thurs until 7pm; closed Mon May 26). More information at www.moseley-art-school.co.uk

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Graham Collins outside Moseley Art School; The building suffers the ravages of time and neglect
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:May 22, 2003
Words:1200
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