A week after I have packed my life away into boxes, only to reopen them a day later and slowly scatter them across my new home, I am on my way to The Public in West Bromwich to do some research for my first article in this series I am calling ‘Welcome to Birmingham’. This collection of beginners guides will document my search of interesting arts venues and events across the city and surrounding areas so that those new to the city, like myself, can begin to explore the culture it has to offer.
I am in somewhat of a rush as it is the start of a Friday afternoon and I am trying to pack a 20 minute drive and interview into the space of an hour. Coming completely unprepared (intentionally), I know little about The Public other than that the building was quite controversial when originally erected and that said, it does instantly jump off the landscape when arriving via road. The sat nav is less than pleased as it becomes incredibly confused by the reconstruction project the roads are undertaking but it isn’t too hard to navigate to a car park relatively close to the building and I race in through the large, pink, sliding doors to the reception desk. If you’re not arriving by car, The Public is quite easily accessed from the tram or bus routes. The train station is a little further away and you’ll probably need a taxi to get to the doors in good time.
Today I am meeting Linda Saunders, the Managing Director, who has kindly bought me a coffee to sip on as we discuss how The Public came to be.
Over the past 15 years there has been a plan to revitalise the town of West Bromwich and inspire the local community with The Public part of the redevelopment scheme that also includes a new college, shopping centre and supermarket. A group called Jubilee Arts, formed in the 80s, who had been holding community events in the local area at various different venues found that with the advent of the National Lottery funding had become available that would enable the group to put into practice ideas of having a base in West Bromwich.
Accepting applications from community architects to design the building, Will Alsop was given the lead and various groups became involved in the planning of the area. With grand ideas of an iconic building being the centre of the rejuvenation, the project began to get out of hand and the Jubilee Arts Council went into administration without the building being finished. The council then took ownership of The Public and passed the management on to the newly formed Public Gallery Ltd who were charged with the task of completing the building and furnishing it. After a slightly complicated method of viewing the gallery designed around interaction with the work, the Arts Council briefly halted the project before Linda took over the premises with a new organisation called the Sandwell Arts Trust, set up specifically to run the centre.
The Public was completed three years ago, quite some time ahead of the other buildings in the development (most of which are only just putting in the supporting structures at time of writing), and so looked quite out of place. With the college opening in the February of 2012 things are only just beginning to take shape as part of a grand scheme and a large amount of the early criticism aimed at the construction was that it looked so out of place. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for the delay of the other buildings, but bad news stories surrounding the project began circling the national press and led to a bit of ill feeling around the development.
That ill feeling is beginning to subside as The Public is gaining more supporters through the door every year and Linda tells me that by the end of the financial year they hope to have had over 300,000 visitors, beating last years total of 263,000. This new support has led to some extra funding to be invested and the future looks promising as development on the surrounding area continues to progress.
The installations and work shown around the gallery focus on interactivity with the viewer, something I actually wrote my dissertation on so it is of keen interest to me. In addition there is a theatre and the café we are currently sat in, as well as conference rooms that are available for hire. To our right a group of women are knitting and Linda informs me that, after knitting for a project commissioned by Trevor Pitt for the gallery, they decided they’d quite like to meet every Friday in the café to sit and knit various items for the community around them. With that nice anecdote it’s time for me to rush back to work, getting my coffee to go and arranging to meet Linda the following day to take a look around the building.
On return to the car I am quite dismayed to find a parking ticket on my windscreen issued 3 minutes beforehand. When I entered the car park I saw no signs informing me it was pay and display, no signs dotted around the car park and after a good look around eventually find some unsigned pay stations sparsely situated. Not particularly impressive, and there is certainly no signage when entering, so one to watch out for if you do park near the building (next to the construction work).
It is now the following day and I am returning to The Public with my 1 year old son to have a look around the building itself, making sure I park in a different location. We eat in the café which serves your standard sandwiches, crisps and a some hot selections and I once again meet up with Linda who takes me up to the top floor where the internal offices are located. She tells me that there are a few businesses operating out of The Public on this floor, as well as the spaces occupied by the internal operations team. Whilst not an area that many of you will visit, I feel this area is worth discussing as once you are up to the height of the top floor you can see the scale of the redevelopment process underway around the city centre. To my right the new Sandwell College campus sits proudly, directly in front of me the construction work of the new shopping centre and supermarket. I struggle to think of many places that have had such a large regeneration without a national interest (Stratford for the Olympics, for example). I can now see why it is a little unfortunate that the building has been completed so early in comparison to everything else, as the project is quite clear to me as I cast my eyes upon it for the first time, a luxury not available to local residents.
The building has employed over 100 apprentices in the past year who work on this floor, another example of how it is reaching out to the community to offer the youth greater prospects in industry.
Below we enter the first of the gallery and exhibition floors open to the public. On one end of a floor that spans the length of the building is a large open area capable of hosting learning workshops designed to engage the community. These range from arts and dance workshops to computer based learning and there’s something for all ages. The space is quite bright with a large window allowing for a nice natural light. As I walk through some children are partaking in a computer class learning how to animate a short film.
Through the centre of the floor there are permanent installations, touch based screens by Josh Nimoy that allow the user to interact by drawing that my son is very keen to get involve with as he peers up from his pushchair. At the back of the space is a room containing some installations. Once again Ewan is delighted to get involved as he learns that when he waves it affects the screen in front of him and then gets equal joy from banging the Noisy Table by Will Nash. There are other interactive displays down either side of the floor, but I shall let you discover these for yourselves.
The floor below is a space to hold conferences. A lime green floor covers much of the room that can be used as one long room with tables and chairs and a series of sectioned areas that can be customised to suit the size of the group.
The rest of the installations surround the outside of a combined first and second floor. These spiral around the edge of the building and as you walk you gradually move closer to the ground on a walkway with rooms splitting off periodically into larger galleries. Linda tells me that a few of the interactive displays need updating, but many of them are good fun to play with and encourage the user not only to interact with it individually, but as a group as well. I can imagine a school group enjoying them throughly. Toward the end of the path there are screens displaying previous works that have been on display in The Public before eventually I finish my tour of the building, learning about the small theatre that hosts a variety of shows but is mainly focussed on comedy. Down the side of the theatre is a gallery of pictures created by local artists which are partly for decoration and partly for sale. Seeing this wall of imagery is quite a nice way to conclude the tour, a visual example of The Public creating prosperity for the people of West Bromwich, encouraging them to bring out the artist in them.
The Public seems to have a good sense of what it is about and where it is going and to top it off it is is free to visit, you can find out more information about what’s on and how to get there on their website. You can also watch their showreel here.