The boss of a controversial art gallery, branded a "gross waste of public money" by MPs, has challenged plans by a local authority to convert the venue into an extension of the town’s college.
Linda Saunders, managing director of The Public in West Bromwich, has begged Sandwell Council to persevere with the gallery and not pursue an idea to develop the facility as an extension of the newly-built Sandwell College.
The local authority said it was considering using 80 per cent of the £67 million arts centre in New Street as a sixth-form college to secure its long-term future.
The gallery, run by Sandwell Arts which employs 60 people directly and accommodates small businesses employing a further 70 workers, has depended on millions of pounds of grant funding since it opened.
Under the new plans, the college would seek to lease the building from the council.
But Ms Saunders has urged the authority to continue to back the venue as a gallery, which is centrepiece of a major regeneration of West Bromwich town centre alongside the UK’s largest Tesco store and a major retail development.
She said: “We have been operating in the middle of a building site for quite a time and it is ironic that just weeks before the town centre development is completed the council is considering the future of The Public. Once the retail development is completed footfall in the town centre will rise by 40 per cent and these will all be potential visitors to the venue.
“West Bromwich is one of the most deprived areas in the country and The Public provides an attraction for visitors to the town. We have been waiting to benefit from the new-look town centre and we hope that we will be able to take advantage of the opportunities it presents.”
Sandwell Council took over the management of the centre in 2009 – a year after it opened amid a great deal of local hostility.
Since then, The Public has cost the cash-strapped local authority up to £1.5 million a year and the council has said it is “exploring options” for the venue’s future.
Ms Saunders said the news was “disappointing.”
She said: “We think it is working fantastically well, we had 380,000 visitors last year. Our view is that the building is successful as it is. Nothing has been signed and sealed and we all understand that the council needs to reduce its expenditure.
“But it seems strange that the council wants to revert The Public to an extension of the college which will only be used by a few hundred young people instead of the whole community,” she added.
“There are plenty of redundant educational facilities already in Sandwell, such as the former college buildings which are located near to the new college premises. It will cost a great deal of money to convert such a specialised and unique structure like The Public into a building for education,” the gallery chief claimed.
Building work on the iconic pink and black structure, designed by architect Will Alsop, started in 1995 and after a number of delays the centre finally opened in 2008, 12 months after its original due date and £15 million over budget.
It was condemned by Parliament’s Culture Select Committee as a “gross waste of public money.”
In 2011 the Arts Council was accused of funding a building that was “not fit for purpose” in a damning report into the organisation’s role in building the centre. The report by Anthony Blackstock, which was commissioned by Arts Council England in response to a critical parliamentary report by MPs, issued a damning verdict on the role the Arts Council played as the project’s principal capital financier.
It concluded that The Public represents limited value for money. The Arts Council contributed £31.8 million to the project, increased from an original allocation of £19 million. However, after a troubled first few years, in recent months, visitor numbers have increased at the town centre site.
Ms Saunders claimed Sandwell Council’s idea to renovate the nearby West Bromwich Town Hall to become an alternative arts venue was flawed.
She said: “I have not seen any business costs or revenue projections. This is a big capital project and I am interested to see what business case can be made for this. “You only have to look at a venue like the HMV Institute in Birmingham to see the risks involved,” added Ms Saunders.
“The Public is a unique gallery, exhibiting local artists alongside world renowned names – in art, exhibitions and interactive installations. We are proud of the opportunities we create – those rare chances for local artists and community groups to rub shoulders with, learn from and be inspired by internationally recognised names.
“No other gallery in the region maintains such a focus on the celebration of local talent. We are committed to working with Sandwell Council, and to providing the people West Bromwich with exceptional opportunities,” added Ms Saunders.
Since Sandwell Council made its announcement, The Public has been flooded with messages of support.
LearnPlay Foundation, a tenant at the venue, launched an online campaign titled #LoveOurPublic where members of the community can post messages of support and sign an online petition.
Ms Saunders welcomed the messages of support.
The gallery boss said: “We want to reassure all the people who have got in touch, either directly or through LearnPlay Foundation’s #Love OurPublic campaign, whilst we continue talking to Sandwell Council about the best route forward, at The Public its business as usual.”
For more information, or to sign the online petition, visit www.learnplayfoundation.com/love-our-public.