Two years ago, the odds of The Public arts centre in West Bromwich turning out to be one of the region’s big success stories would have probably been very long indeed.
Having opened 12 months after its original due date and substantially over budget, it was condemned by the Commons Culture Select Committee as a “gross waste of public money”. Even a report commissioned by the Arts Council, which had largely funded the project, concluded it was “not fit for purpose”.
But after a troubled first couple of years, it looks as if The Public might finally be winning over the people who will make or break the controversial scheme.
Visitor numbers to the £72 million venue in New Street have more than trebled since its first year, with 263,501 passing through its doors during the 2011/2012 financial year, compared to just 80,939 in 2009/2010.
Managing director Linda Saunders believes the word has got out that The Public is an exciting and entertaining place to visit
“We have not got a lot of groups which use the building very regularly, and I think we have got a really good offer for the family during the school holidays,” says Mrs Saunders.
But could it also be that part of the reason for the turnaround in the Public’s fortunes is down to a change in the events and exhibitions it offers?
The centre has just finished hosting an exhibition of paintings by West Bromwich Albion’s artist in residence Paine Proffitt.
Liverpudlian comedian Alexei Sayle will visit the venue as part of his first UK tour for 16 years.
Tea dances are held twice a month, and there is also a knitting circle which meets regularly at the venue.
Other forthcoming attractions include an appearance by comedian Patrick Monahan, a burlesque class for beginners, and the Fred Zeppelin tribute band.
The University of the Third Age, a group for retired people, also has regular events at The Public, along with a number of events celebrating Black History Month.
Another example of the varied work which The Public produces is the Light Up Digital exhibition, which opens in November.
The event will combine spectacular 3D art displays, including the projection of an Icelandic volcano erupting, with work by photographers from the around the Black Country.
This all sounds a bit more populist than the early days, when the intention was to create an interactive digital art experience which adapted itself to the user’s voice, choice of colour, words and textures. This led to criticism that it was out of touch with popular opinion, catering for minority, highbrow, tastes.
“I think those criticisms were mainly from people who had never been here in the first place,” says Mrs Saunders. “I think there was a lot of ill-informed comment initially, but the more people have come in the more people get to know about what we do here.”
But she does accept there has been a shift in focus.
“In the early days we started with much more music, but that was where our contacts were,” she says.
“These days we do more comedy, which is very popular. Of course we want to make sure we make money out of what we’re doing, and I think comedy is becoming a mainstream element of what we do. It’s very relevant to people in the Black Country.”
The controversy about The Public will not disappear overnight. Just five miles up the road, campaigners are trying to raise funds to save the Dudley Hippodrome.
They will no doubt ask how so much money can have been spent on one venue, when it appears the cupboard is bare for their own.
At the moment The Public receives a grant from Sandwell Council of £1.4 million a year, which is due for renegotiation in 2015.
But it is equally true that as The Public has become more popular, it has also seen a rise in revenue. While admission to the main gallery is free, the income generated from events has seen an eight per cent increase on last year.
“I don’t think there are many companies that can say that at the moment,” says Mrs Saunders.Subscribe to our Newsletter