Close the doors on The Public

A Midlands arts centre offers a cautionary tale of what happens when social policy trumps artistic content.

Tiffany Jenkins

Topics Culture

Last week, there were two announcements related to The Public – the arts centre in West Bromwich in the English midlands that frittered away £31million of Arts Council England (ACE) money, producing a burdensome and embarrassing white elephant that was deeply unpopular with its namesake – the actual public. The first, a report, rightly draws lessons from the fiasco. The second, about funding, shows that no one is paying any attention whatsoever to those lessons.

Branded as a ‘new exciting arts centre’ with ‘digital technologies at its heart’, The Public was intended to regenerate the area through culture. But, despite the many millions, it went into administration before the expected opening date of 2006. Six years later, it has been through three insolvencies, been recognised as a deeply unpopular disgrace, and is now open again as an ‘exciting creative, community, cultural and business space in the heart of West Bromwich’.

Anything that describes itself as an ‘exciting creative, community, cultural and business space in the heart of West Bromwich’ still doesn’t know what it is. But then, it always had a confused purpose at its heart and low expectations of what the local audience might like.

The very public failures have been firmly scrutinised, including by the House of Commons Culture Select Committee inquiry into the funding of the Arts and Heritage. On publication of the report, John Whittingdale, chair of the committee, singled out ACE and The Public for criticism in his statement: ‘Our report highlights in particular the case of The Public gallery in West Bromwich, which the committee considers a gross waste of public money by the Arts Council.’

Last week, ACE published a report called The Public: Lessons learned by Arts Council England by Anthony Blackstock, a chartered accountant and once financial director of ACE. It is as critical, although it concentrates on some very early decisions and is a bit technical. It also suggests that because many of the initial staff have left, things are now okay, which couldn’t be more wrong.

Even so, the report makes a number of useful observations. Blackstock details that ACE supported and funded a building they knew was not working. ‘In summary’, writes Blackstock, ‘Arts Council England agreed to fund a building that was not fit for purpose’. The organisation then found it politically impossible not to continue its support.

Blackstock implies throughout that the social goals of the project overrode any spending control and all critical assessment of the building and what it was delivering. The social and political agenda got in the way of the art, which meant that no one wanted to visit the centre because there was nothing good to see. Despite this, funders continued to throw millions of pounds into it. ‘The Arts Council was responding enthusiastically to the policy demands of the day: so far that, with hindsight, it might have compromised its power to determine policy independently while acting within the terms of its Royal Charter.’

The rationale for the space has always talked up the importance of participation and regeneration, of breaking boundaries and involving people who wouldn’t normally go into art galleries. Today, the website boasts of being a ‘force for the better in the community’ and that the centre makes art ‘accessible’ because: ‘At the core of our business we are committed to using the arts to raise aspirations’, to play a role in ‘changing lives’ as well as ‘improve individuals’ health and wellbeing’. But the website is less clear on how an arts centre might be able to do such amazing things.

There are a number of exhibitions on right now, but none that catches your attention, especially not ‘Heads’ – which is a ‘fun and interactive piece’ where the audience uploads an image from their phone before they ‘stand back as it evolves in to the artwork’. It’s like something anyone could do on their own computer – if they wanted to, that is. Another – ‘The Art of Noise’ – shows more promise, with a series of exhibitions that look at the significance of sound and music in the arts. I had a look and a listen, but it was very thin: a rag bag of a couple of films, talks and photographs. There was no depth, research or real reflection and little to look at.

Unless the building is built around a collection of art work – old or new – that there will always be a hole at it’s centre. The Public will never be the lively, participative space its promoters long for unless they realise that good art doesn’t deter people – in fact, it is the only reason why people will come, and come back.

Blackstock points out that those who created the centre had ‘good process’ but that it wasn’t applied properly, despite ‘clear and strong misgivings’. Reflecting on why the centre’s creators ignored good advice, he states: ‘The speculation is that the wider social goal dominated all other factors.’

In case this isn’t clear, he makes this point a number of other times, concluding: ‘It is curious that Arts Council England found itself so ready to bypass the assurances it ought to have made, as described in the five sections above. It suggests that an overriding force was in play: that the Arts Council became so persuaded by the transformative role of the project – for art, society and the built environment – that it was prepared to override due claims of prudence. Perhaps it was seeking too far to fulfil the social agenda of the government of the day. If this was the case then it strengthens the current Arts Council’s case for insisting on the integrity of the “arms-length principle”. At the time, it had ample resources from the Lottery to back an extension of its role – too much, one might argue with hindsight.’

Blackstock is thus rightly, if quietly, angry at this huge, irresponsible, waste of money on a project that ACE knew was deeply flawed. But, there is a problem with his suggestion that it was the social agenda of the last government that meant ACE ignored all advice.

At the same time as this subtly searing report was launched, it was also announced that The Public would be awarded more money. Now, this cannot be due to the social agenda of the last government, or a few misguided staff members who have long since gone. These decisions are being made in there here and now, in spite of the well-founded criticisms of the centre.

Even though everyone knows it has already had too much money, for some crazy reason, The Public has secured more. It will receive £600,000 funding for the next three years to support its visual arts programme. That’s £200,000 a year for the next three years (2012 to 2015) from Arts Council England’s strategic funding.

What is strategic about funding a failure in times of economic crisis? We seem to have a situation that even when problems are publicly acknowledged and crystal clear, these directionless, bottomless pits of arts buildings that no one wants to go to still get hundreds of thousands of pounds. The press release states that the ‘grant will be used to grow the digital and interactive content of the building’. This is worrying. It is unlikely that anything good will ever be shown here, for no real content is mentioned. There is nothing to see.

It is abundantly clear, then, that it wasn’t just the social agenda of the Labour government and the failings of certain members of staff that have allowed this project to continue at huge expense. There is also the creation of cynicism in place of cultivating an appreciation of good art. Just think what treasures that money could have been spent on, to truly contribute to peoples’ cultural lives. It is a public failure and should be shut down. Please close the doors.

Tiffany Jenkins is a cultural sociologist and author of Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: The Crisis of Cultural Authority, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)). Visit Tiffany’s website here.

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Topics Culture


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