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Public Inconvenience
Regeneration & Renewal – 23 February 2009

The tortuous history of the Public arts centre in West Bromwich makes for painful reading. But, as Mark Smulian reports, something of value may be saved from the wreckage.

Even its name looked baffling. But why someone originally chose to give West Bromwich's arts centre "the pUBLIC" a strange lower case "p" is the least of the mysteries surrounding a building that has so far cost some 60 million without fully opening.

There was always something odd about the Public's priorities. The main planned attraction was supposed to be an "interactive gallery" in which visitors would engage in digital arts, a curious priority for a town that for 40 years had not even had a theatre. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the gallery has yet to see the light of day: it went into administration earlier this month, a few days after exasperated funder the Arts Council ended its revenue payments of 500,000 a year for the centre (R&R, 2 February, p2). Yet it's still possible that this 6,000sq metre building may become a catalyst for West Bromwich's regeneration if Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council can put the Arts Council's parting 3 million grant for the scheme to good use.

West Bromwich is a Black Country town which is being economically squeezed by Birmingham and Wolverhampton. Before the Public, the town's arts provision was paltry, but it did have charity Jubilee Arts, which had been fostering community activities since 1974. Out of this organisation came the idea for the Public: an arts space where visitors would participate, rather than just passively look at exhibits and performances.

Some were unsure from the start. "Several of us tried to persuade Sylvia King, who headed Jubilee Arts, that the interactive gallery was nice but ought to be seen as an extra," says veteran Liberal Democrat councillor Sadie Smith. "Privately, (King) was strongly advised by us not to stress the gallery too much."

Both the Arts Council and Sandwell council, though, supported the interactive gallery concept and the former provided a series of grants. An Arts Council spokeswoman explains: "We committed funding to support what was seen as a new way for people to experience art in an area which did not have many other options."

In 2006, the company behind the project - born out of Jubilee Arts - went into administration and for another year little happened. By 2007, fearing the presence of a pink-and-grey embarrassment in the middle of its town centre - and the consequent damage to its regeneration prospects - Sandwell council took over the project. The council appointed arts consultant David Clarke to manage it, and he got the bulk of the building - including a cafe and live stage - open and into use last June, but not the interactive gallery, its central attraction.

By this time, the council owned most of the equipment intended for the interactive gallery. However, the management of the gallery was to be handled by a separate company called - confusingly - the Public Gallery. It was this body's inability to get the interactive gallery open that led to the Arts Council deciding in January - whatever its earlier statements on the importance of young people's expectations of interactivity - that it had finally had enough. Arts Council chair Sir Christopher Frayling said at the time: "Although the building is open, the interactive art gallery at the centre of the vision for the Public is not. We have done everything we can, but there comes a point where we have to make a difficult judgement." He continued: "The absence of a firm opening date for the gallery and the considerable increase in annual revenue funding required by the integrated business plan was central in the decision not to fund this plan."

The Public Gallery management company promptly went into administration. "When the Arts Council decided it would not give more money, it left the trustees with no option but to seek protection from their creditors," says administrator Bob Bailey from accountants Baker Tilly. All 32 staff members were made redundant.

Given the project's troubled history, it might be supposed that those behind the Public would be happy to drop the interactive gallery and focus instead on the building's existing live venue. But Clarke continues to have high hopes for the building and all its intended content. "The building was opened in June and, since then, there has been continuous development, despite the interactive gallery not opening," he says. "We still intend to open that gallery in a few weeks. The equipment the council owns for it is really quite sophisticated."

However, Clarke admits that, when the council took over the project, it reappraised the building to make its use more flexible. The Public, he says, now boasts "a very lovely theatre that seats 250 people and is in use most days, some extremely good music spaces and a state-of-the-art recording studio used for foundation degrees in music technology for Wolverhampton University". The university may develop an incubator unit in the Public for innovative businesses, mainly but not exclusively in the creative industries, Clarke says.

Clarke points out that the Public is slap in the middle of the town, where there has been little investment since the 1970s. "Although it looks isolated at the moment, there will be a new town square, a large retail development by Tesco, a redevelopment of the Queen's Square shopping centre and a new building for Sandwell College," he says. "The Public will be the centrepiece."

But not everyone feels the same. Councillor Smith, a long-standing critic of the Labour council, says: "There seems to be a lack of any real feel for the general improvement of the whole town. It's all bits and pieces." David Powell, director of consultancy David Powell Associates, which specialises in the arts and regeneration, has not worked on the Public but says he has followed its story "with wonder and puzzlement". He feels that West Bromwich tried to do too much too soon. "I worked on the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead which, at 46 million, is roughly the same size as the Public in financial terms, and compared to that, the Public is extraordinary in its failure to get on the runway and fly," he says.

Challenging forms of art from outside the mainstream can form a successful part of regeneration efforts, says Powell, but it needs a context and critical mass. "The Baltic went to Gateshead, which was not exactly known for experimental arts, but it got Arts Council funding because for ten to 15 years before it was up and running, the council had been steadily investing in the arts and bringing some quite difficult and challenging things there," he says. "For unusual projects to work, preparation needs to be done in the area concerned. You can have imaginative and challenging schemes and people will respond to them, if they help a place to tell its own story."

The story of the Public has so far been one of grandiose visions hit by cold realities. However, the building itself remains operational and, if a sustainable use can be found for the Public's centrepiece gallery space, it may yet contribute to West Bromwich's regeneration.