The Public finally goes public

West Bromwich’s new arts centre has had a long gestation, but the fruits of its £50m budget are soon to see the light of day, says Emily Pacey


West Bromwich does a good line in 1970s rockers: Robert Plant, Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott, and two founding members of Judas Priest hail from this medium-sized town near Birmingham. But besides a fierce passion for its football club, it has produced little else of note in the past 40 years. Add to this the fact that the ‘Baggies’ last won the FA Cup in 1968, and you could surmise that West Bromwich’s best days are behind it.

Yet come July, West Bromwich will throw open the doors of its vast new arts centre The Public, which made its ambitions clear when it appointed architect Will Alsop and Ben Kelly, who designed iconic Manchester nightclub the Hacienda.

Sadly, The Public then flunked things quite impressively. The companies managing the project – The Public Charity and The Public Building – went into administration in 2005 amid rumours that they had not paid their partners, including Kelly and Alsop. Despite a familiar story of spiralling costs – the arts centre budget is now £51.6m, some £12m more than intended – and a two year delay to its opening, the scene is set for a happy ending to a sad tale of mismanagement.

Public Gallery director Marlene Smith is keen to distance the company, which is legally a tenant of The Public, from this troubled past. She joined at the end of 2006, and insists that the problems have been ironed out, and all partners have been paid.

‘We certainly were very careful when we created the replacement companies to run the centre, Multistory and Public Gallery, to protect them from the risks of creating a capital build,’ she says.

Kelly gave his imagination freest reign in Public Gallery, an interactive digital art space that takes up more than a third of the 9000m2 arts centre. ‘The floors are laid, the power’s on, the trees are installed and receiving their metallic, shimmery finishes as we speak,’ says Smith.

Visitors will enter the gallery from the third storey, where floating, sloping walls do not quite reach the floor and Kelly’s ‘trees’ provide a metal thicket, hung with interactive digital artworks. Visitors can sit among the trees and look down to the rest of the gallery.

The shimmering trees, and Kelly’s soft colour scheme of browns, yellows and greens were inspired, according to Smith, by ‘a walk in the park and the idea of flotsam and jetsam – he is working in metaphors, making the interiors really respond to Alsop’s organic architecture’. Once through the trees, visitors will descend a spiralling 250m ramp to the second and first floors.

The gallery features an interactive system designed by All of Us. This will link all 12 permanent digital artworks to a multimedia desk of images, sounds and words that visitors can select from as they enter the gallery. Visitors will wear necklaces that gather information as they tour the artworks. All this information will be uploadable to a computer in the ‘Make’ area of the gallery, allowing participants to print out a visual interpretation of their experience – their ‘artwork’.

‘The way you experience the gallery will affect your artwork. If you walk through the gallery slowly, or whizz through fast, as a child might, this will be reflected in the final piece that is produced at the end of your journey,’ says Smith.

However, she reveals that there is no new digital technology used in the gallery. ‘We are trying to create quite a robust system, so we are putting existing technologies together in interesting ways.’

Public Gallery hopes to be processing hundreds of visitors every day, people entering as ordinary punters and exiting as interactive artists, wielding the coffee mugs and tea towels printed with their own art works to prove it.

Creating a visual identity and brand for an art gallery with this level of visitor participation, and an ambition to attract local people, is the challenge faced by the Nottingham consultancy Casciani Evans Wood.

Currently sporting a plain, temporary visual identity by Bark Design, Public Gallery will unveil its new branding at the start of March.

Casciani Evans Wood began work on the new identity last month. It has been working on the Public Gallery project since September, having won a three-way unpaid creative pitch to design the wayfinding, signage, website and branding.

Director Jonathan Casciani describes the wayfinding as having ‘a light touch’ and being ‘understated’. However, he claims that the branding will be altogether bolder, taking inspiration from Alsop’s colourful building and Public Gallery’s focus on participation.

‘The building is very friendly, and the visual identity needs to be inviting, attracting families and local residents and the respect of the art world. Art institutions tend to be quite austere, but not this one,’ he says.

All being well, West Bromwich could be about to steal some limelight from Liverpool in its year as European Capital of Culture, and really put itself on the map.

West Brom’s Interactive highlights

Flower of My Secret, by Usman Haque
A series of drawers containing virtual flower beds teeming with whispered thoughts and secrets left behind by visitors

Access at The Public, by Marie Sester
Visitors can spotlight unsuspecting individuals and send them a compliment only they can hear

Flypad, by Blast Theory
Up to 11 players create 3D avatars that dive and fly in the gallery’s central atrium, with the aim of swapping limbs and skins by colliding with and holding other players

Les Portraits des Histoires, by Esther Shalev-Gerz
Videos of West Bromwich residents telling stories against each individual’s chosen backdrop of The Public building

Make, with input from All of Us
The end result of an individual’s journey through the gallery is made into an image that can be printed on to wrapping paper and coffee mugs, inspired by the artworks they have seen and data collected during their visit

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