Ruth Millington on Coffee, Chagall & Challenging the Art World

Meet the Birmingham-based art and culture blogger

I met with Ruth over a coffee in Birmingham’s iconic library. Sipping a latte, she is modest about her achievements, both in the art world, and online. Ruth is a Birmingham-based blogger, currently working on reviving the city’s Shakespeare Memorial Library. Working to secure £1 million in National Lottery funding for the project, she is much more than a behind-the-scenes blogger. Her beautifully curated blog, ruthmillington.com, covers all things Birmingham and beyond, from theater reviews, to upcoming exhibitions, to how to get a job in the art world.

Our in depth chat covers Ruth’s work and education, as well as a juicy low down on Birmingham’s best bits. The art world is a tough place, and everybody navigates it differently; hearing about Ruth’s progression from undergrad to gallery assistant, to being where she wants to be is both inspiring and encouraging.

Having confronted the art world head to head for over eight years, we touch on the exploitative nature of arts internships, and how she’s made a tangible difference. To find out about Brum, it’s eclectic art scene, and ones to watch, read on….

watercolour portrait of Ruth Millington by Danny Howes

Watercolour portrait of Ruth Millington by Danny Howes

What did you study to get to where you are today?

I went to Durham University… originally I was going to study English and classics, but when I applied they said “oh you you have to pick a third subject”, so I picked art history. Then I realised that actually, it was the best bit of my course! So, then I changed my course to be mainly classics and art history. In my final year my dissertation was on Paula Rego on contemporary artists and how they use fairytales, and I thought, “this is really interesting, I want to spend even more time on this”. Then I went to do a Masters in art history at Oxford, specialising in modern and contemporary art history. And I would say to everybody, go and do a Masters if you want to work in a gallery! Because specialising is really important when there’s so much competition.

I’m a big believer in experience; does a Masters really open doors that a BA degree can’t?

For my Masters I specialised in contemporary women artists and fairytales, but I also wrote two papers on Futurism and Italian art. When I went for my job interview at the Estorick, it was like “I know my stuff on this” and they really appreciated that; I think that’s what got me that job. The other thing is, you make a really good network of people during that time, and you have a whole year to spend in that one subject. I used that time to do work experience, so I worked at the Ashmolean volunteering, I did an internship over Christmas at Christie’s, and then I worked for an education charity alongside my studies. You just have this whole year and space to spend time thinking about what you want to do. I was worried that if I just did my BA, I’d be rushing things.

“I find that a lot of people who come here by accident love Birmingham, and become ambassadors for the city”

What are you working on at the moment?

Oh God!

“Nightmare question?!” I chip in.

So okay – I’m currently employed by the University of Birmingham, and I work on various art projects. Last year I ran a literary festival, I set up arts internships for students around Birmingham, and then at the moment I’m working on a Shakespeare project for the library. And my job has been project manager, so mainly writing the bid (70,000 words!). I’ve been balancing doing that and having a permanent role, with freelance work which I’ve been doing in evenings and weekends, which is a little bit… I never take any time off!

“Who do you do your freelance writing for?”

I’ve got a few nice clients now where it’s regular every month. One of those is a gallery called Rise Art, and my job is to write the blog. I write about 500 words every month about whatever I want, which is nice! I also write for a newspaper in Dubai, strangely, and the editor over there is also the editor of a fashion magazine… So what I’d say is, if you get in with one editor, then they’re often working on something else and they’ll get in touch again, if you’ve done a good job! [laughs] I’ve also written stuff and never heard from the editor ever again… that piece wasn’t my best!

Giorgio de Chirico, ‘The Revolt of the Sage’, 1916, The Estorick Collection

Are you a true Brummie?!

I am now, I’m adopted! I think like a lot of people, I’m basically here by accident. I find that a lot of people who come here by accident love the city, and become ambassadors for the city. I came from London, and my quality of life here is so much better than in London. I can walk to work! The arts scene here is smaller, but it’s more inclusive and open and welcoming, and that’s why I love Birmingham. I see myself as a brummie now.

When and why did you decide to start your blog?

I moved from London to Birmingham three years ago for a job at the University, and all my friends were like “why the hell are you moving to Birmingham?! There’s no art in Birmingham!” so then I was sort of on a mission to find out if there was any art. I found that there was quite a lot going on, but nobody knew about it, and no one was writing about it. There’s hardly any national coverage of art events going on in Birmingham, so I was like, I know, I’ll start a blog! Also, because my job at the university wasn’t in a gallery any more, whereas before it had been, I wasn’t working directly with artworks and I wanted to stay connected. So just for me, it was to make sure that I was going to things and thinking about them. It sort of evolved – I went to a gallery opening, which was really good, probably drank too much wine, and got home and thought, “I’m going to write a blog post about it”. From there, it went from me asking people “can I come to your show, can I interview your artist?” to then gradually being contacted and asked to come to events to write about them. It’s grown from there, and it’s pretty much all Birmingham focused. I just wish I had more time to spend on it, because making money from a blog is very difficult. 

Image courtesy of Anna Kolosyuk

“I once took a Chagall painting to Paris on the Eurostar. I got a coffee, and I was like… don’t spill the coffee on the Chagall!”

Let’s get technical for a minute… do you tailor your content to what people are searching for? Or just write about what you enjoy?

So I started off just writing about what I fancied, and I probably had about ten readers a week. But I’ve become a little bit more tactical now, so I’d say I write two sorts of blog posts. One is just the stuff I want to write about, either topics that I care about, or shows I’ve seen that I really enjoyed. The other is answering questions that I know people are asking, you know, where can I see exhibitions in Birmingham… and then I would add to that question. Those posts do best over a longer time through Google rankings. I use Analytics, so I can see what’s popular, and I can also see what people are searching for on Google and answer that question. Just doing a bit of SEO work has doubled how many readers I have… I was dating a software developer and he was like, “you need to do some more SEO”, and initially I was like nah… but now I’ve learnt it and you may as well, because you want people to read your stuff! If you’ve gone to all that effort to write something, you’ll have ten thousand people reading it as opposed to ten.

Do you have a content schedule?

No. [laughs] I don’t and I probably should… if it weren’t for my full time job then I could be more organised. I tend to fit it around my full time job when I can. If I’ve seen something in the week, like the Sackler Foundation, which sparks something in my brain and I think, I want to write about that; I’ll write it on a Sunday. I don’t want my blog to become a job; it’s a hobby but it’s also a portfolio through which people contact me to do freelance work.

Your blog is a great platform to find out about art and culture in Birmingham and beyond – how do you research your content?

That’s changed since year one, and now year three. So at first, I was going out hunting for what’s going on. I would spend a lot of time going to galleries and asking what they’ve got coming up and which artists they’re going to be showing. From me going out hunting, people now contact me. Once you’re on the press list, people tend to ask you! [Getting on a press list] happens quite organically. Going to lots of events, and joining that network of people throughout Birmingham, then people know about the blog. So for example, Birmingham Museum can track how many people come to an exhibition off the back of my blog, and how many people click through the link. Now they contact me and say “can you advertise this on your blog?”. It is something that I could monetise, but they give me lots of backlinks, share my blog on social media, and free tickets for events and exhibitions, and invite me to nice parties! And I’m happy with that.

Image courtesy of Henrik Dønnestad

So you’ve worked in commercial galleries – what did you do?

My first job was in a museum, I worked as an education officer – this was The Estorick Collection. I was running their education programme, which was kind of crazy because I was like 22. They liked the fact that I specialised during my Masters in Italian art… and I think they wanted someone young to come in and take the reigns. Then I got a job as a gallery assistant / researcher. My job was to research all the artworks that we got in for sale, and then tell the clients why they should buy this Picasso, and not another one. It was mostly Modern Master and Impressionist work, but then we had four contemporary artists as well.

That job covered basically everything – it was meant to be a researcher role, but I was a PA for the director, I did bookkeeping for the gallery, I shipped works around the world, sometimes I was a courier for the artworks… it is quite stressful. I once took a Chagall painting to Paris on the Eurostar. I got a coffee, and I was like “don’t spill the coffee on the Chagall!”. In a gallery like that, there were only three of us, and you do everything. It’s a really good job to get; I would always say to go into a small organisation first, because you learn and see so much more.

“The best thing that’s come from being a blogger…  apart from free cocktails? [laughs] Meeting people”

What’s the best thing that’s come from being a blogger?

Apart from free cocktails? [laughs] Meeting people. I’ve made some really good friends. For example, at Reuben Colley Fine Arts on Colmore Row, I covered an exhibition by an artist called Danny Howes, who is a great portrait painter. He was a runner up for Sky’s Portrait Artist of the Year. He’s been commissioned to do a series of paintings for a new museum in Dublin, and he’s got some new exhibitions coming up. Off the back of interviewing him and writing about him, we became friends, and he has since painted my portrait! So it’s things like that which money can’t buy. Or sometimes I’ve written about artists on my blog, and they can’t pay me so they’ve given me artworks – I’ve also started a collection of contemporary artworks from artists in Birmingham. That’s why I like to keep it as a hobby and not try to monetise it, because these are the things which I like to get out of the blog. 

You worked to make arts internships more accessible; how did you do it?

I joined the University of Birmingham with a job to set up arts internships for students. My job was to find organisations that would be happy to take a student for say, a 6 month internship. I then saw a problem in that they were all unpaid, which is really unfair. So I set myself the task of finding funding. Over the next few years I managed to get some funding; in the end we got £60,000 of funding, so 60 students got paid internships which was really good. 

You mentioned unpaid internships; the art world seems to be sustained by unpaid work – how did you secure funding for students?

Two ways – one was through a pot of money for universities setting up innovative projects. I wrote a grant application where you have to show what the need is, and what the impact would be and then we were lucky enough to get some funding from that. The second way was through private individuals. We managed to contact university alumni who are now successful in arts positions, and remember how difficult it was when they were starting out. So they identify with the scheme, and donated some money as well.

Painting by Danny Howes

Let’s talk Birmingham. Can you tell us about any upcoming events or exhibitions?

Theater wise, I’m really looking forward to Matthew Bourne’s production of Romeo and Juliet, which is coming to the Hippodrome Theater. There’s an exhibition at Eastside Projects of a female South African artist, and her work looks great. She does huge mural wall paintings, looking at race and gender identity. September is the best time for the art world; loads of new shows open and there’s all this stuff going on. There’s a new gallery called Iron House in the Jewellery Quarter and they’re going to have an exhibition of street artists – they’ve got ten artists signed up to create work on-site.

What’s your favourite place in Birmingham?

I like St Paul’s Square in the Jewellery Quarter. It’s got everything you could want, a little piece of green, a graveyard… [laughs]. There are lots of galleries around it, nice bars and restaurants… it’s just so pretty and feels really authentic to Birmingham and its heritage. [In terms of galleries] One to watch is Odox, next door to Iron House on Great Hampton Row in the Jewellery Quarter. They’ve got six studio spaces in there, and an exhibition space. It’s quite small but they’re bridging this gap between fine art, illustration, graphics, design… trying to break down the exclusivity of the art world. I feel like they’re one to watch.

Where you can find Ruth Millington online

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The Art Wanderer

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