Contemporary art Controversies United Kingdom

Plan to turn £67m arts centre that has proved popular into a college

Built with £31m from Arts Council England, The Public in West Bromwich is now threatened with closure

The eye-popping Public

Supporters are fighting to save The Public, a five-year-old, £67m arts centre in West Bromwich, which Arts Council England (ACE) awarded more than £31m to build and a further £4m for its artistic programme and interactive art. The controversial multi-purpose arts centre in the English Midlands has defied its critics and proved popular but is now threatened with closure.

A petition to stop a plan to turn the Will Alsop-designed building into a sixth-form college, downsizing the space for visual arts to 20 per cent of the ground floor, was debated this week by the local authority, Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council. A council statement says that Sandwell College's proposal to lease the building from the council, and turn it into an arts college by 2014, is due to be decided "later this summer".

Linda Saunders, the managing director of Sandwell Arts Trust, which has run The Public on behalf of the council for the past four years, says that the council could end its contract as early as 30 September, which if it happens would leave The Public "boarded up". She says: "We've just had 50,000 visitors in July—our best ever". Last year the centre attracted 380,000 visitors. It houses visual art galleries, a theatre and performance space, cafe, conference and education spaces as well as providing work spaces for 29 companies providing apprenticeships to more than 200 young people (the petition was organised by some of the apprentices).

In a statement, Sandwell Council's deputy leader, Mahboob Hussain, said: "After rescuing The Public from administration, we want to make sure it has a long-term future." This could be as an arts college, an annex to Sandwell College's new £77m campus nearby. The council currently provides around £1.4m a year to Sandwell Arts Trust to run The Public, while ACE provides £200,000 a year in an agreement that is due to end in 2015. The current exhibition, "Ordinary/Extra/Ordinary", which is supported by ACE, features the work of Tracey Emin, Martin Creed and David Shrigley as well Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane's Folk Archive (until 29 September). A spokeswoman for ACE says that it is holding talks with the council and Sandwell Arts Trust about the centre's future.

The Public grew out of a successful community arts scheme. Launched in the late 1990s, it had a long and troubled birth: the architects went into liquidation and the organisation running the project went into administration. Extra funding had to be provided by the local authority and Arts Council, among others. An independent report into what went wrong commissioned by the Arts Council in 2011, states that "[the Arts Council] was too keen to meet ministers' social agenda and had ample funds to do so", referring to lottery funding and the Labour government's policy of making the arts accessible to all.

Despite advice from its own expert advisory panel that the building's design was inflexible, revenue funding probably inadequate and management wanting, the Arts Council committed additional funds to get the centre open, which happened in stages from 2008 to 2010. The author concluded that ACE's "highly questionable decision" to continue funding the project in 2001 meant that it became the arts centre's "shadow developer" compromising its supervisory role as a funder.

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