Nobody can deny that
The Public was a very difficult project.
The project grew out of the work by Jubilee Arts (founded 1974) whose mission was to enhance the lives of the local community through artistic programmes and endeavours. One aim of this group was to create a building which would serve as a permanent piece of art, be visually and structurally challenging and provide a place for community groups to gather to carry on the vision of Jubilee Arts.
The opportunities for major capital projects created by the new Lottery Funding in the nineties allowed this dream to become reality. At that point Lottery distributors were committed to working with small organisations and encouraged the building of large, iconic buildings that would have a lasting impact on their locality. From the very beginning, there were concerns both about the construction costs and the revenue needed to run the building.
British architect Will Alsop was selected to design the building with construction beginning in May 2003. Alsop was the perfect architect for the project. He worked with Jubilee Arts to develop a magical 'box of delights' - a place that exactly mirrored Jubilee Arts' ambition to use the arts to help make West Bromwich a better place.
When Will Alsop moved on from the project its distinctive main features were constructed and the extraordinary atmosphere of the building created. Will remained a passionate advocate of the project.
In the summer of 2006 Architect Julian Flannery of Flannery & de la Pole developed a brief and completion strategy for several areas of the building, such as the Theatre, the Pinktank Cafe and the Level 2 Flexible Space which were redesigned.
It was a risky project, and with a number of organisations supporting the project going into liquidation and administration, there were inevitably delays that contributed to the increase in costs. The Public finally opened partially to visitors in 2008, with digital artworks being completed in 2009. The building was finally completed in 2010 with the opening of its Level 2 Conference Suite and finalisation of office space on Level 4.
Its construction stage and early history were beset by many problems. The development had been highly controversial and encountered financial difficulties, with The Public (formerly Jubilee Arts) going into administration before the expected opening date of July 2006, when unable to meet the conditions for additional funding set by Advantage West Midlands. As a result of this Sandwell MBC took responsibility for completing the construction of the building and a new charity, The Public Gallery Ltd, was set up with responsibility for the artistic elements of the building.
Further controversy surrounded plans by The Public Gallery Limited to introduce a regular entry fee of £6.95. In June 2008, the building was partially opened but the gallery was not operational so the charge was not introduced. Work on the IT aspects of the gallery, especially the use of RFID was extremely complex and by January 2009, it was not clear when this would be completed. The Arts Council decided not to fund the recovery plan and, as a consequence, The Public Gallery Ltd went into administration.
Sandwell MBC took on responsibility for completing the gallery, the final work on Levels 2 and 4 and, with Sandwell Leisure Trust, set up Sandwell Arts Trust to run The Public as a whole. A new management team came in and they worked with the Arts Council and Sandwell MBC to secure a final payment of £3 million from the Arts Council to complete the construction and bring the building into operation with free admission.
Following all its problems, The Public became an icon of the region and drew in visitors from the local area as well the Midlands and beyond. It was reliant on public-subsidy but also earned a growing proportion of income from hires, tenants and events and planned to increase earned income. The regeneration building work that surrounded it was completed in Summer 2013.
The visual arts programme was successfully attracting work by some of the best contemporary artists and showing alongside work by local artists. This approach was successful in raising the profile of art in an area where participation has been low. Summer 2013 Ordinary/Extra/Ordinary curated by David Thorp was the main show, bringing together work by Tracey Emin, David Shrigley, Jeremy Deller among others as well as a new commission from Birmingham artist Lucy McLauchlan. Later in the summer, the Annual Summer Open celebrated local talent.
Previous exhibitions have included The Art of Invention featuring work by Maurice Broomfield, a collaboration with other local art organisations and schools celebrating the work of local popular author Janet and Allan Ahlberg and contributions from well known artists including photographer Martin Parr.
The Public was an amazing building, a work of art in its own right – which offered both challenges and opportunities to artists and to our curatorial team. Learning how to programme with the building, rather than against the building was a challenge but the increased visitor numbers and positive feedback from them for the different exhibitions showed that we became more adept over time.
Programming for our audience of people for whom we were the only gallery
they visited was challenging. We had to be very aware that we were very popular with families during school holidays. In programming we were aiming to show work that felt relevant to our local audience but had the power to show them a different world, to raise aspirations. It also needed to work with an audience that did not approach a gallery visit in the same way as more regular gallery goers. People expected to touch the work, to interact with it physically. Most did not come expecting to read long pieces of curator’s interpretation – whatever we did had to grab attention. And we had to recognise that our family audience was very important to us and we needed to present graphic or explicit material sensitively.
Participation came in many forms:
• Visitors – with the interactive works in the gallery, workshops, artist talks
• Artists – commissions, residencies, hacking
• Content contribution – summer show, e-exhibitions, generous host, regular opens – inviting contribution from grassroots, new semi-professional artists, assisting with curation eg Jeremy Deller Folk Archive.
• Student participation – working directly with artists through residencies, collaborations, MA Show with Wolverhampton University, shows by other colleges, assisting with curation
• Schools participation – George Salters as school in residence and other schools with artist residencies, talks
• Apprentices – installing shows, working with artists and games, design.
Nurturing an eco-system within the building of tenants, community groups, café users, evening and daytime entertainment created a virtuous environment where everything individually was more successful because it linked to something else. That took time and attention to build – staff had a strong customer focussed ethos and an openness to collaborative working that fostered a spirit of equals together and empowerment. The effects of this could be seen in our relationship with artists who enjoyed developing ideas with us and were always positive in the feedback.
However, despite it’s growing success and the opportunities presented by the opening of New Square, The Public remained very much in the eye of the political leadership for Sandwell Council. As times became more difficult, and Councillors were faced with tough choices, so the lack of empathy for the arts amongst the current leadership led to one of those tough choices being to cease to fund The Public and transfer it to Sandwell College.
The remodelling carried out by the College – taking out the theatre, removing the art works from the ramp and limiting public access to a small area on the ground floor – takes this remarkable building away from the general public who have paid so heavily for it through their taxes – local and national. It does not end the financial costs – or reduce them for tax payers and is a sad end to a brave project.
The Blackstock Report was commissioned by Arts Council England in 2010 to examine the difficult journey The Public had made, and to learn lessons from this. It can be read here:
In loving memory of The Public