The words 'cutting edge' meant only sharp metal to the pupils of Oozells Street School a century ago. Now their old classrooms are playing host to the avant-garde. Jane Norrie had a preview
One hundred years ago, Oozells Street School in Birmingham served the children of its neighbouring factory workers. Tomorrow, after a period of disuse and a three-year refurbishment funded by a lottery grant of around pound;5 million, it is being relaunched as the new home for the Ikon Gallery.
The shell of the original Gothic building, with its soaring tower, handsome stained glass windows and intricate decorative tiles, has been lovingly restored and fitted with a contemporary interior on three floors. Architects Levitt and Bernstein have added a cafe and bookshop on the ground floor, and a striking glass lift which takes you to the lofty white galleries above. Extra facilities, lacking at the Ikon's old premises in John Bright Street, include an education room and resource centre complete with an intranet information base.
Confirming its reputation as a promoter of cutting edge art, the Ikon's first show in its new home is a powerful double act featuring 73-year-old American feminist Nancy Spero and young British artist Georgina Starr in her first solo show. Starr revels in images from popular culture, filling the gallery space with a surreal installation called Tuberama. Here a giant toy train trundles round a comic strip landscape peopled with life-size cardboard cut-out figures. This dream-like scenario is accompanied by pop music, and youngsters are likely to find it fascinating.
Nancy Spero's two-part show is more serious and challenging. Specially made for a chapel-like space in the building, Let the Priests Tremble celebrates female sexuality by inscribing powerful images of women across the gallery. At once beautiful and disturbing, and taken from sources as diverse as Greek vases and fetishistic magazines, her figures dominate the walls and seem to leap towards the ceiling. In the accompanying piece, Black and Red, the images are collaged into a sensuous triple-banded frieze. The effect is to question the way women have been treated, both as the authors and objects of art.
The Ikon Gallery is a registered charity dedicated to making contemporary art accessible. Previously it had a single education officer, but now, with a view to ensuring that education is an integral rather than an add-on factor, the role has been jointly ascribed to three curators. Staff see themselves as "stimulators" rather than disseminators of knowledge. Workshops for school groups will focus not on making things but on using games, creative writing and roleplay to spark discussion.
Primary groups visiting Tuberama, for instance, will be encouraged to think about themes like fantasy and escapism as antidotes to boredom. Sixth-formers will use the Spero display to trigger a debate on gender and sexuality. Gallery visits will act as stimuli in many subject areas including drama, language and personal development as well as art.
History is likely to be an especially productive area: an archive has been compiled about the school, including reminiscences from ex-teachers of the Forties. When it was first designed, Oozells was given a ventilation tower because draughts were thought to improve the learning process. Today art is being offered as a draught of fresh air.
Ikon Gallery is at 1 Oozells Square, Brindleyplace, Birmingham B1 2HS. Tel: 0121 248 0708. On April 24 and 25, Ikon will host one-day workshops for 14 to 16-year-olds run in collaboration with Northern Touring Opera to explore the themes of 'Tuberama'. Both exhibitions continue until May 24