Lorne Jackson goes behind the scenes to see what the future holds for the revamped Midlands Arts Centre.
On entering the refurbished Mac building, in Cannon Hill Park, the first thought to flash through my mind is who dumped a forest in the foyer?
Okay, it’s not quite a forest. Just a triumph of trees, plus a rampage of rolling hills that look like they’re about to roll over me.
Then I figure out what has happened.
The countryside hasn’t invaded the Midlands Art Centre. (If you want a genuine tale featuring an army of trespassing trees, you’d be better off reading Macbeth, not roaming the Mac.) Instead, the new design – incorporating expansive windows – has opened up the building visually, giving the visitor plenty of spectacular views of the surrounding park.
The interior is bright, spacious and airy. This was not the case in the past. Before the revamp, the Mac was as bright, spacious and airy as Winston Churchill’s War Room. And it had more gloomy nooks and crevices than Count Dracula’s guest bedroom.
There was something shabby, sullen and Soviet about the design and decor. It had the Brezhnev blues.
Now Glasnost has come to the Mac. This truly is the era of openness.
So open, in fact, that the management team have agreed to show me round the building, a few weeks before its official relaunch on May 1.
During my sneak-peek visit, I note that it’s not just the windows that create an impression of transparency. The staircases and hallways continue the theme. This would be a devil of a building to indulge in a game of hide and seek.
How things have changed. The building that closed for renovation in April, 2008, was very different.
The Mac was a mess. It wasn’t the fault of any one architect. Various buildings had been added and connected during a 40-year period. They were all at different levels; and with no lifts, wheel-chair and baby-buggy access was limited to a tiny percentage of the centre.
Degradation also set in. Over the crushing decades, any sharp edges the building once sported sagged, slumped and flagged. I, for one, found this lack of coherence and drabness off-putting. Although the Mac offered a wide range of creative activities for all ages, I usually dodged the place. Everything seemed so exhausted and apologetic.
The redevelopment by Mac, in partnership with the city-based South Asian arts organisation, Sampad, was ten years on the drawing board, while a saga of funding setbacks and budget cuts raged around it.
The main challenge for concept architects Branson Coates, who handed over to Chetwood Architects, was to iron out the kinks caused by the random growth of the complex, opening up larger and more coherent circulation areas, while bringing the building up to date with modern standards of accessibility.
As well as the wide windows, bringing branches and brightness, there is a new entrance reached by a new bridge across the River Rea. The bridge is flat and easy for wheel chairs to traverse, unlike the still-present hump bridge which was once the main route of access.
Inside, lifts have been added.
Mac director Dorothy Wilson says: “The main entrance is now much more visible than the previous one. And we’ve really tackled the problem we had with accessibility.
“Now, there is one hundred per cent access to 98 per cent of the sight.”
Dorothy is also proud of the expansiveness of the revised building.
“There’s such a sense of scale, now,” she says. “People will have the feeling that they can go off and explore, which wasn’t the case before. We’ve also brought the park into the centre, and the centre into the park.
“The choice of materials used in the building also gives that impression. All natural materials have been used. The floors are made from quarried stone tiles. What we had before was tacky carpets.”
Dorothy gives me the grand tour of the grand building.
She shows me the new cafe, where much of the food on offer will be freshly baked on the premises, and locally sourced. Fair trade will also be a focus.
There is another bar at the end of the hall and in between is a large gallery, where art will be displayed.
But it won’t just be paintings on the walls. Plasma TVs will be hung in seven or eight locations. Another aspect of openness, the Mac’s grand theme.
Video cameras can be installed in the various studios. Linked up to the plasma screens, they will be able to show exhibitions being installed, or what fun is being had in a pottery or dance studio.
Wi-Fi is available, too, allowing the world of the internet to enter the Mac.
One part of the building which I was very anxious to look round was the revamped film screening area. Unlike most major cities in the UK, Birmingham is not blessed with a truly great independent cinema.
The Mac has always had its screen, but in the past I was never that impressed by its choice of viewing material. The cinema is in the same place, but it has now been re-seated, and sound isolation has been added.
But will the viewing options be more varied and interesting than before?
Dorothy nods: “It’s going to be dedicatedly independent,” she says. “Indie, art house...”
And that’s not all.
Plays are going to play a big part in Mac movies.
Major theatrical productions at the National Theatre and other centres of dramatic excellence will be videoed, then broadcast here. Dorothy has more innovative ideas for the big screen.
“I’m interested in exploring things that traditionally happen on small screens,” she says. “For instance, I want to use our screen here to play computer games on a very large scale. Youngsters who play these games usually do so in isolation, in their bedrooms.
“I’d like to bring the games out in the open, so that they can be played as part of a group, while creating a closer sense of community, not isolation.”
Most of the money that has been invested in the Mac was spent on infrastructure.
Top line Apple Macs are also available, for computer programming and design.
The Midlands Art Centre is entering the technological age with a cyber sprint, another aspect of the new openness, of course.
“The internet means you can do anything, anywhere,” says Dorothy.
Next, Dorothy takes me to the gallery, which is imaginatively called The Gallery. “I used to be able to put my hand on the ceiling,” she recalls. “But the new gallery is much higher, which allows us to bring in natural light from the windows.’’
In the Mac’s theatre, everything is new, and seating capacity has been expanded from 220 to 300. It’s a warm and intimate space, even with 80 more seats.
The re-imagined Mac is certainly impressive. Now, at last, it can be the art centre it always should have been. More good news is that the project hasn’t strayed over its £15m budget, and is only three months behind schedule.
Even so, should money be spent on improving an arts venue in a time of deep economic crises?
Dorothy disagrees. “We had reached a point where this building was well past its sell-by date,” she says. “If we hadn’t been able to bring the plans for the building to fruition, it would have closed within two years.”
She adds: “The Mac was much loved, but it was also well-fingered. I was staggered that we managed to sustain an audience when there were so many deficiencies in the building. Now we hope that we can embrace our loyal audience once again, and expand upon that audience, too.
“Our ambition is to reach even more people, in parts of the city that traditionally have no connection with the arts, where the locals believe it isn’t for them.
“The technology that is now at our fingertips can be used as part of our outreach scheme. We can use YouTube and web sites to broadcast trailers outside of this building. Our creative ambitions don’t need to be limited by walls.
“Hopefully there will be many more people coming to the MAC, now it’s new and spangly. The concept of the building is its openness. Nothing here will be closed off or intimidating. People of all ages will be able to try new things without fear of being mocked.
“The intention isn’t just to bring the park into the Mac. Most important is to bring art into more people’s lives.”
The Midland Arts Centre reopens on May 1, with a programme of events. For more details visit www.macarts.co.uk