Ikon was set-up to encourage the public to engage in contemporary art. As a result of this, the gallery runs an off-site 'Education and Interpretation' scheme that educates audiences, promotes artists and their art. The gallery is open every day of the week except Mondays, though it opens on bank holiday Mondays.
Featured artworks include all forms of media including sound, sculpture and photography as well as paintings. Exhibitions rotate throughout the year so that as many pieces can be displayed as possible. Ikon is a registered charity which is partly funded by Birmingham City Council and Arts Council of England.
"The Ikon" (as it is colloquially known) was founded by Angus Skene and four artists from the Birmingham School of Art - David Prentice, Sylvani Merilion, Jesse Bruton and Robert Groves - after Skene bought Prentice's painting Kate and the Waterlilies in 1964, and the two started discussing the lack of support for contemporary artists provided by Birmingham's existing artistic institutions. Originally conceived as a "gallery without walls" (exhibitions were planned to tour unconventional locations such as cinemas and post offices in a motorcycle sidecar) it was eventually established in 1965 in an octagonal glass-walled kiosk in Birmingham's then-new Bull Ring shopping centre. The first exhibition was of work by John Salt, and the venue was staffed by the founding artists and sometimes their spouses on a voluntary basis.
The venture was funded by Skene, but control was left in the hands of the artists. The name of the gallery was coined by Groves, who was interested in the icons of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The name was agreed by the other founders partly on the basis that it "divides beautifully geometrically and was splendid in all directions". Ikon's founding prospectus declared: "Ikon is intended as an antithesis to exclusive art establishments and galleries … it has been formed because of the need for an accessible place where the exchange of visual ideas can become a familiar reality
The initial lease on the kiosk expired after three years, but with Arts Council support from 1967, the gallery was able to appoint a full-time gallery manager and move to a former mortuary in Swallow Street in 1968. By 1972 it had held 93 exhibitions and 40 group shows, and in 1978 it moved again to a former carpet warehouse in John Bright Street.
The gallery moved to its current site in 1997 with the cost of the conversion partly funded by a grant from the National Lottery. The refurbishment work was designed by Levitt Bernstein, who reinstated the tower which had been demolished during the 1960s. Café Ikon, on the ground floor, was designed by Birmingham-based architects The Space Studio and opened in December 1998. Form, Space & Order were the contractors. In July 2006, it opened a second site in Digbeth - Ikon Eastside.
Ikon is a limited company, registered as an educational charity. Ikon receives core funding from Arts Council West Midlands and Birmingham City Council and raises additional income from a variety of sources, including charitable trusts and foundations and corporate sponsorship.