Hits and misses in the regeneration game
Colchester’s Firstsite is likely to be the last in a line of publicly funded galleries outside the capital
By Martin Bailey. Museums, Issue 226, July-August 2011
Published online: 03 August 2011
ENGLAND. The decade-long, Arts Council England (ACE) Lottery-funded bonanza of contemporary regional galleries appears to be reaching its conclusion. The final big one to be completed is Firstsite in Colchester which opens on 25 September—some four years late. Designed by Rafael Viñoly, it was originally due to open in 2007 but the gallery has been plagued with difficulties, including a change of building contractors.
The new venues are spread across England, from Margate on the south coast to Gateshead in the north east. The latter’s Baltic, a former flour warehouse that cost £46m to convert, heads the list of attendance, with 400,000 visitors a year. It is followed by Nottingham Contemporary, which attracted 290,000 visitors last year, its first year (when numbers tend to peak). Then comes Walsall’s New Art Gallery with 200,000 visitors, the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (Mima) attracted 130,000 last year and The Public in West Bromwich, 110,000. A much smaller institution, the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes, drew 20,000.
Margate’s Turner Contemporary, which opened this spring, has already recorded encouraging results: 140,000 visitors from April to June. The Hepworth, in Wakefield, which opened in late May, has also attracted 100,000 visitors so far. The challenge for both will be to sustain these numbers after their novelty has worn off—something their peers have managed with varying degrees of success.
Some of England’s new galleries have permanent collections, such as Walsall, Mima and the Hepworth, while others are completely dependent on temporary exhibitions and their architecture to attract visitors. The Baltic and Turner Contemporary are both kunsthallen; the former overlooks the river Tyne, while the latter frames a view of the coast.
The flurry of new galleries means that the regions of England no longer compare unfavourably with their continental neighbours, France, Spain and Germany in particular. All the new galleries in England have been a success in terms of presenting international contemporary art outside London, even The Public in West Bromwich, thanks to loans from the Midlands-based collector Frank Cohen. However, it is less clear that they have had a major impact in terms of regeneration, the so-called Bilbao effect, which was so often promised in funding applications.
The Public ended up costing £65m, nearly 50% more than the Baltic (which attracts four times as many visitors). Although the building is dramatic, the architecture means that only a small proportion of the space can be used for displaying art. The Public’s 110,000 visitor figures are for their first year, and are likely to have fallen since then.
All the venues have free entry. Taking running costs and visitor numbers into account, the cost per visitor ranges from £6 per head at Nottingham Contemporary to £44 at the MK Gallery (with most galleries in our survey coming in at around the £10 level).
Running costs for the venues come from two major sources: local authorities and ACE. Both are having to make cuts. In March ACE announced its grants, which means many of the galleries will receive less. For example, the Baltic will get £3.1m a year from ACE by 2014/15 (a drop of 6%) while Walsall’s grant of £920,000 is 11% less than it previously received. In June the New Art Gallery announced it was closing on Sundays and Mondays to save on staff costs.
MK Gallery: one of the first to open, in 1999, the MK Gallery is in a Blonski/Heard-designed building in the new town, 56 miles north of London. The cost of the building was a surprisingly modest £2m (with an ACE lottery contribution). Running costs are £900,000 a year, hence the high £44 per head subsidy of its 20,000 visitors. Anthony Spira is now in charge. Its founding director was Stephen Snoddy, who went on to the Baltic and is now running Walsall.
New Art Gallery, Walsall: set in a town on the outskirts of Birmingham, the gallery was opened in 2000. The hope was that it would encourage regeneration, and this has been partly successful. It is in a striking building designed by Caruso St John that cost £21m (£16m from the ACE lottery). The gallery has its own collection (primarily the Garman Ryan donation from Lady Kathleen Epstein). The founding director was Peter Jenkinson, but after he left there was a four-year hiatus before Snoddy’s arrival. Its annual running costs are £2.1m.
The Baltic: The Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, at Gateshead (just across the Tyne from Newcastle), opened in 2002. It is the largest and most ambitious of the new galleries. Its capital cost was £46m (with a whopping £34m from the ACE lottery) and its nine floors add up to 10,000 sq. m of space. During its first four years it has had three directors: Sune Nordgren, then Snoddy followed by Peter Doroshenko. Mima’s founding director Godfrey Worsdale was appointed in 2008. Its running costs are £4.5m.
Mima: The Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art opened in 2007 in the north east of England. Designed by Erick van Egeraat, it cost £14m to build (£5m came from the ACE lottery). After Worsdale left for the nearby Baltic in Gateshead, Kate Brindley took over in 2009. Its annual running costs are £1.3m.
The Public: set in West Bromwich, a satellite town of Birmingham, The Public has proved a fraught and costly undertaking. It closed two days after first opening in June 2008 because its interactive art was not working, eventually reopening in August 2009. The building, designed by Will Alsop, ended up costing £65m (£32m from the ACE lottery), which is equivalent to half the cost of Tate Modern.
Nottingham Contemporary: opened in 2009, and designed by Caruso St John, its cost was £20m (£6m from the ACE lottery). Alex Farquharson is the director. Its running costs are £1.7m a year.
Turner Contemporary: Margate’s new gallery opened in April. The David Chipperfield-designed building cost £17m (£4m from the ACE lottery), after costs spiralled for the earlier scheme by Snøhetta and Spence. The director is Victoria Pomery and its annual operating budget is £2m.
The Hepworth: Wakefield’s Hepworth opened in May. Also designed by David Chipperfield, the building cost £35m (£6m from the ACE lottery). Its collection includes Barbara Hepworth’s plasters. Simon Wallis is the director and its annual operating budget is £2.5m.
Firstsite: Colchester’s £29m gallery, which is clad in a gold-coloured metal, will finally open on 25 September. Some £9m of its construction cost came from the ACE Lottery. As well as temporary shows, it will regularly present Latin American art from the collection of the University of Essex. Katherine Wood is the director of Firstsite and its annual budget will be £1.3m.
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