The Public gallery opened this weekend to mixed reviews, and so begins the mad rush to make this thwarted venture a success. On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays interactive art enthusiasts can view the entire gallery free-of-charge, and for those who can’t make it along or don’t want to forget the experience, there’s also a glossy 28-page magazine – ‘Go Public’ – with all the ‘latest news’ about the gallery.
This first issue of the magazine is jam-packed full of events, though they’re mostly of the musical kind and it’s not until page 23 that we’re given a list of planned exhibitions. Perhaps the most notable of which involves large screen presentations of the recent history of Sandwell and West Bromwich, and has been given the ironic title ‘Imagining a better place’.
It’s fair to say that after coming in for some pretty harsh criticism, the straight art element of this project is being played down hugely. Many suspected that the exhibits would date quickly, and some suggested that most of the installations just replicated interactive experiences that can be found fairly easily online. The wacky exterior is here to stay, but the emphasis is being laid on its function as a music venue and learning centre.
And who could object to the locals having the option of a regular tea dance? Or the opportunity to listen to new up-and-coming bands and comedians? West Bromwich doesn’t have a cinema so the fact The Public will be showing some films (albeit old ones that turn-up on tele every Xmas – Casablanca? It’s a Wonderful Life?) will probably go down well. In fact, there’s really nothing massively objectionable in the programme of events.
Perhaps the quality of some of the exhibitions, or the tribute bands, or the real benefit behind many of the ‘learning activities’ is a little questionable, but all things considered, there seem to be many live events on offer. Good.
But hang on? How much did this thing cost? If all West Bromwich wanted and needed was a music, theatre and arts venue, surely this could’ve been provided for just a fraction of the millions that have been laid out over the years for this pink palace? The Public now seems to be duplicating what the MAC (Midland Arts Centre) in Birmingham has been doing for many years, and sure enough, they'll benefit from the fact the MAC will be closed until Spring 2010 for renovation (that’s £14.3m being spent on a centre that’s been open since 1962), but directors should be well aware that their arty traffic may well just be following a diversion until that reopening.
They might dodge or deny it, but the extra ‘hook’, indeed the main feature of this building was the be the gallery. It might be casually known as The Public now, but this old website that they’ve neglected to take offline clearly demonstrates the original concept. Now the art has been relegated to two or three pages, mostly at the back of the brochure, and local people have the most expensive community arts centre in the country, if not the world.
The ‘brains’ behind this operation are always so keen to pull the wool over our eyes – how many times were we told it’d open next week/month/year? Whatever happened to the office ‘pods’ they wanted to rent out to private companies? Why is the cost estimate for The Public different everywhere you read it (£63m or £73m??)? What happened to the winner of the 'Voice of The Public' competition? ...And why are we now being presented with a music venue after being promised an art gallery?
Let’s hope these guys can get away with charging people £3 for a screening of Moulin Rouge or Boyz in the Hood, as it’s in no-one’s interests for this thing to fall flat on it’s face and we’d all rather them make money than borrow even more from cash strapped taxpayers.