How The Public is winning people over

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.

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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.

Comments for: "How The Public is winning people over"

Patrick Hadley

£1.4 million divided by 263,000 visitors indicates that each and every visit to the Public is subsidised by Sandwell Council to the tune of £5.32. And that is ignoring any other subsidies or sponsorship the Public may receive, and does not take into account the £72 million spent on building it.

geoff

Could someone tell me how much the public is earning in cash and when do the taxpayers oSandwell expect to get some money back ,never i expect

Curt

I would like to know how Sandwell Council can afford £1.4 million a year when we are being told to "tighten our belts" and that there maybe a "possibility of a rise in the community charge" next year, Its a joke!!!

Surely there are more deserving projects that amount of money would help!!!

El Peffers

It doesn't really help that media organisations such as the E&S are so down on the Public - I've been a few times - sometimes to the free exhibition and sometimes to the paid events and each time I've had a positive experience. It is one of the very very few reasons to go into West Bromwich, but hopefully with the regeneration going on at the moment, it will only garner more interest in the coming years.

Paul

It would be intresting to hear how many of the 263,000 are council employees. SMBC holds many large meetings and conferences in there now.

Jerome Turner

I'm assuming all the negative commenters have visited The Public and seen what benefits it offers the community? I go to a writer's group, which was homeless after it was unable to be held at the library. It meets every fortnight and is a great free opportunity for a real mix of enthusiastic writers in the area. When I turn up, there is usually youth brass band practicing, and zumba classes on at the other end, so it's always well used. I;m guessing a great proportion of The Public's offer to the community is free, i.e. they're not earning cash for all their activities.

albion

Yes it's fantastic 72 million and you can have a free writer's group and zumba classes.............WOW..........i live around the corner and have been many times but it is well over-hyped and just a waste really......!

albion

I'm sorry but people are not taking to it anywhere near as much as what has been advertised,also how are these visitor number's calculated because i live down the road and i hardly see a soul there................and still a MASSIVE waste of public money.

Vernon Grant

Perhaps a trip to Specsavers is in order. There are now over 20 companies based in the building and loads of apprentices. There have also been some very big conferences there (not connected with the Council but big organisations like British Gas).

This project was mis-managed in its early stages but that money will never come back. The local people should recognise that they have an amazing facility in their midst and support it in every way possible. It is great to see how things have come on and I for one will be visiting again shortly.

albion

I'm glad you enjoy it but you are the small minority who does,it's great that you say over 20 company's are based there but put it in perspective it is a 72 million pound office block with most of the interactive element's not upto scratch but you can enjoy it as you sound quite a boring pompous individual anyway.

Pete

How can it still be justified after all this time AND OUR MONEY, I still think all that money (the figures we are told) could and should have been well spent elsewhere in the borough, i.e subsidising rents on all the empty shops for a start, more money spent on roads they are atrocious, care for the elderley need i go on.Why didnt the council have a referendum on what they want for a change instead of these hair brained schemes, oh sorry I forgot it's only our money after all

albion

Indeed so.....!

Codger

The attendance figures work out at 720 per day , based on a 365 day year. Does this include al the paople who work there ,directly or indirectly?r

Patrick Hadley

Employees who attend five days a week, at £5.32 subsidy per day, add up to over £2,500 a year. Why should Sandwell Council pay £2,500 a year in subsidy so that they can say that the Public is being used?

Carter Jones

The Public - waste of money or an opportunity to put West Bromwich and Sandwell on the map? Probably both! In the early days yes it had its problems and deserved criticism. Perceptions shift, time moves on and white elephants either become millstones and die or slowly (and these things usually are slow) turn around. We will ever get the money back? No. Would Sandwell have ever got the £72 million from the sources that awarded it for anything else? No. Is £1.4m a year too much for the Council to be giving a project such as this? Yes. Does The Public offer something to be proud of in the future - now (and I hate saying it) seems to be turning around. Yes. Future generations won't know or care about the £72m which came into the region solely to build this project, what they'll want is a building they feel a degree of ownership of, a place their friends and families can do activities or see things they may not be able to see elsewhere. Is The Public starting to provide it - yes I think it is. It just needs to find a way of decreasing of reducing the subsidiary the council gives it to provide people of Sandwell with such opportunities. The Public today inherited a mess and many problems two years ago or whatever it was and has come a long way.....these things don't change over night after all. People should put it in perspective and give it a chance to carry on working to reduce that £1.5m.....it is after all another service the Council commissions - libraries, sports centres and other cultural activities are given money by the council. Arts and culture has a place for the people of Sandwell and that place (although it pains me to say) probably is The Public. I'm going to stop whinging and thinking WAS a waste a money and simply judge it now on what it does and how it makes the most out of - hopefully - a lesser subsidiary from the council in doing what it does. That's what will be my benchmark now.