‘But what is it for?’ was a question often asked by funders.
There has been at least one serious attempt to give physical reality to Joan Littlewood’s vision: The Public, in Sandwell. This huge, multi-disciplinary and interactive community arts centre was imagined by Jubilee Arts, who had been working in this part of the post-industrial West Midlands since 1974. The new building was conceived as an affirmation of community art as a cultural field that deserved equal respect with any other. It was to be a cornerstone for regeneration in West Bromwich town centre and a place for local people to develop and share their creativity. Like Joan Littlewood, Jubilee set out to say that this place and these people deserve the same as anyone else: the best.
Designed by Will Alsop, The Public opened in 2008, but by then problems had already forced changes of design, vision and operation. It struggled to gain the wholehearted backing of Arts Council England, which provided only project funding after 2009. But The Public did win strong local support – in a town with no other arts facilities, the centre attracted tens of thousands to exhibitions, theatre and comedy shows, tea dances, workshops and events. In 2013 Sandwell Council withdrew its funding and closure became inevitable; but, during its last 12 months, The Public had welcomed more than 450,000 visitors.
For many people – especially those who never visited it – The Public is just a symbol of how National Lottery funding can be wasted on useless cultural projects. It’s true that many mistakes were made during the project’s conception, construction and operation. Hubris, inexperience, fear and politics all played their part and the consequences should not be minimised. Many people were hurt by the project’s ultimate failure.
Does that mean it should not have been attempted? Does it mean that the vision was unachievable? The art world, usually so quick to defend its ‘right to fail’, said little about a project it neither understood nor liked. For me, and despite the mistakes and the failures, The Public was a brave attempt to make Joan Littlewood and Cedric Price’s vision real by creating a permanent Fun Palace in one of the poorest boroughs in Britain. The idea of opening a first class arts space in such an area was already challenging: doing it in a way that valued all kinds of creativity was too much. So, like Littlewood and Price before them, the Jubilee Arts team struggled to make their vision clear to the planners and funders. Graham Peet, who worked on the project from start to finish, writes on a legacy website:
‘But what is it for?’ was a question often asked by funders. In the end that question stopped being asked. It had become obvious to hundreds of thousands of visitors what it was for. It was about making West Bromwich a better place to live.
The people of West Bromwich did not have the same difficulty. I visited the project several times during its troubled life and though the problems were plain enough, I thought that, with time and support, The Public could succeed. What always impressed me was seeing place full of local people discovering and enjoying art. These were very different visitors than those I might see in a conventional art gallery – local people, curious and open-minded, appreciative of what the strange pink building could offer them. They came not despite but because of the mix of art and activity that made The Public so incomprehensible to the art world. Work by Tracey Emin, Allan Ahlberg, Martin Parr, Shazia Mirza, Jeremy Deller, John Akomfrah, Jenny Eclair and countless others rubbed shoulders with that of young artists, amateur and craft groups, students and school children. And that made perfect sense to the people of West Bromwich.
‘My roots are in West Brom I just loved all of the photographs as they captured every aspect of the wonderful, warm hearted Black Country people. Thank you. I shall revisit the Public again and again’
(Comment left by a visitor to Martin Parr’s exhibition)
It didn’t quite work, yet – but it was on its way to working. Its closure was a sad moment for many people, including me. It also seemed to underline how difficult it is to do something actually different. We’re told nowadays to ‘Think outside the box’ – such a cliché – but try to think creatively, though, really leave existing assumptions, and you’ll soon find the boundaries.
Joan Littlewood would have understood The Public, I think. She would have recognised too the difficulty of getting the powerful to accept such a different idea. Was it worth the cost?
…Part 4 tomorrow
- The Public Story, a website by Graham Peet and Linda Saunders, with whose permission the second block of photographs is included.