Future of Midlands arts centre in doubt

funding threat as The Public in West Bromwich faces multiple teething troubles

LONDON. The future of The Public in West Bromwich is under threat, with the Arts Council facing a crucial decision on whether to extend revenue funding. The Will Alsop-designed building has already cost £60m, with the Arts Council contributing £26.5m. Other major funders are Sandwell Council, Advantage West Midlands development agency and the European Regional Development Fund.

We understand that a detailed assessment of The Public’s financial viability has been demanded by the Arts Council. Their decision on funding could go either way, with one source saying that its future is now “very much in the balance”.

Without Arts Council support, it would be extremely difficult to maintain the galleries, and the space would then have to be turned over for an alternative use. This would be difficult, because most of the building has a very idiosyncratic design, with sloping ramps and curved walls.

The Public, which has been planned since 1993, had a chequered history before it was finally inaugurated on 28 June 2008. But after a festive two-day opening, the galleries were quietly closed, although the performance space and café remain open.

We were told that the gallery closures were because of technical teething problems with the art installations, particularly with the computer technology. The works include Usman Haque’s Flower of My Secret (drawers containing virtual flower-beds) and Blast Theory’s Flypad (for players to create their own avatars).

The Public explained that “given the pioneering nature of this project and the many interdependent installation complexities involved, completion is taking longer than originally scheduled”. Reopening was promised for last September.

As well as the permanent installations, The Public has temporary exhibition spaces, and the inaugural display was scheduled to be by video artist Esther Shalev-Gerz. This never materialised, and on 9 Dec?ember it was announced that the first exhibition would be 40 “dog portraits” by Can?adian photographer Shari Hatt. These were made in a temporary “Dog Portrait Studio”, set up outside The Public from 2 to 14 December. Dog portraits was billed to open on 12 February.

On 13 January, The Public’s head of marketing, Laura-Mae Browne, told us that “it is very likely that the Shari Hatt exhibition will be postponed, due to the artist’s commitment to other projects and initiatives in Canada.” Since the photo?graphs had already been taken, it seems surprising that the artist returned to Canada without having completed her project, although she does promise to return in March.

The Public has lost a considerable amount of revenue in its first year of trading. Gallery director Marlene Smith had been hoping for 100,000 visitors, with a standard admission charge of £6.95.

The Arts Council had already committed £500,000 a year for running costs up to 2010/11. This money is currently being paid, although it could be ended, since The Public has failed to meet its commitments. The Arts Council is now asking for a much more rigorous business plan. A firm decision will be made shortly on whether to increase funding—or cut off support.

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20 Sep 09
14:14 CET


Actually the Esther Shalev-Gerz exhibition did materialise. I went to it. It was open to visitors during a series of previews primarily aimed at local people.

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