New arts centre has cost taxpayer £57m but there’s not much art (and no theatre)

The Arts Council will provide £500,000 a year for the striking Alsop building

LONDON. The Midlands arts centre known as “The Public” is scheduled to open in West Bromwich, five miles outside Birmingham, on 28 June—three years behind schedule. The venture became insolvent in 2006, and it was rescued with a cash injection.

The Public, initially designed by Will Alsop, has now ended up costing £57m of public money. Nearly half has come from the Arts Council, making it among the five most expensive projects the organisation has supported outside London. The Arts Council is also committing just over £500,000 a year for running costs up to 2010/11.

Marlene Smith, director of The Public, describes it as “the UK’s first truly participatory art gallery”. Each visitor will be provided with a personal “radio frequency identification” tag to wear, allowing them to “build their collection of data as well as communicate with works of art”.

Alsop’s metal-clad building with irregularly-shaped windows will certainly be dramatic, particularly inside. The Public’s interior is described as “a dynamic space with no vertical walls, and incorporates dizzying drops, a glade of steel trees carrying responsive foliage, digital waterfalls, flying avatars, labyrinthine paths and sound tunnels, alongside two temporary exhibition spaces.”

Chequered past

Few major arts projects of recent years have had quite such a troubled history. The scheme was originally proposed by a West Bromwich group, Jubilee Arts, which in 1993 received local council funding for a feasibility study. Three years later it was awarded Arts Council support to develop the scheme.

Alsop was commissioned in 1998 to design the building and construction began in 2003, with costs then estimated at £39m. However, in October 2004, Alsop Architects faced financial problems, going into receivership. Midlands architects Flannery & de la Pole were later brought in to complete the project, which involved detailing the interior and overseeing construction. Meanwhile, costs continued to escalate, and in July 2005 The Public’s backers agreed to provide a further £12m.

Despite this financial injection, in March 2006 The Public was declared insolvent. Building work stopped, and 21 staff were made redundant. Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council then took over responsibility, and a new company, The Public Gallery, was set up to run the project, with additional financial support. The council’s hope is that the arts project will be a key element in the regeneration of West Bromwich.

The final cost looks as if it will be £57m. Funders are Arts Council England (£26.5m), Sandwell council (£14m), Advantage West Midlands development agency (£8.8m) and the European Regional Development Fund (£8m).

Shortfalls

Architect Julian Flannery admits that The Public project has had a “torturous” past, with a lack of continuity: “We’ve had a lot of personnel changes and quite a number of contractors, along with 12 different planning supervisors. Everything stopped three-quarters of the way through the project when it became insolvent.”

Cost-cutting has also created problems, according to Mr Flannery: “There has been huge pressure to make cost savings—in my opinion, it went too far in some cases. However, Sandwell council has now gone to considerable efforts to ensure the quality is appropriate.”

The two main internal architectural challenges have been the spaces which Alsop dubbed The Sock (which contains the double-level art gallery) and The Cave (a darkened space for video installations). The cladding for The Sock had to be changed, since Alsop’s solution was too expensive. The budget for The Cave ended up being cut to one tenth of what had been planned, with a total redesign.

Mr Flannery also admits that although the main events space will be suitable for “meetings, rock gigs and concerts, it does not work as a traditional proscenium theatre”. This is because the fly tower cannot take significant structural loads, although theatrical events not requiring complex scenery can be staged. This is an unfortunate loss for an arts centre.

Mr Flannery sees the auditorium as “a flexible multi-function” space, which will be particularly good for the spoken word, for meetings and conferences. It will be used extensively for Sandwell Council events. Other spaces are being rented out to businesses.

Alsop was originally critical of Flannery & de la Pole’s appointment, and a year ago he commented on the building: “It’s in danger of being cheapened to become a big nothing. I fear they’ll finish it off incorrectly, expediently, cheaply.”

Last month Alsop went inside The Public, and although it had not quite been completed, he was delighted, feeling it to be “spectacular”. He told us: “It’s a bit early to know, but I am now 95% convinced it will be the best building I have ever done.”

When The Public opens on 28 June, the first temporary art commission in the double-level gallery will be Les Portraits des Histoires, a video installation by Paris-based Esther Shalev-Gerz with photographs. No details are available about future shows and the admission charge has not yet been announced.

The Public does not have its own art collection, although there are a number of large permanent installations. These include Usman Haque’s Flower of My Secret (a series of drawers containing “virtual” flower­beds), Blast Theory’s Flypad (a collaborative experience for 11 players, who create their own 3D avatars) and Marie Sester’s Access at The Public (which enables visitors to spotlight unsuspecting individuals using cameras and send them a compliment via a speaker).

The double-level art gallery and permanent installations

represent around half the building’s area. The rest comprises the auditorium, public area on the ground floor (with café), educational facilities and business space. Gallery director Ms Smith is expecting “over 100,000 people every year, including audiences who do not normally attend art galleries”.

Mr Flannery admits that the building’s success will depend on “the quality of the content.” He says the content “sounds fantastic and it will certainly be unique”. Martin Bailey

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