Thursday, 9 July 2009

The Public

Art is always a contentious subject and you can be guaranteed that public money spent on it will incur the wrath of many residents and the national media. I remember a debate years ago about whether there should be a large sculpture placed in Stratford High Street in London's east end. A perplexed local stated that it just wasn't right for Stratford as "we are too ordinary for this", and that it would be more suitable for New York or the West End or somewhere famous. Like Ilford." Famous like Ilford? What an indictment to consider your town or district less famous and less worthy of public sculpture than Ilford.

And so - perhaps a decade later - we see the same argument being used to rubbish The Public, a new and interesting arts and community development in West Bromwich. Putting aside the obvious stupidity of the name (try Googling it) and the fact that it's technically THEpUBLIC, claims that taxpayer money is being wasted is understandable but misguided: local authorities are tasked with providing a balance of services to its residents; providing for the arts locally, in a variety of manners, is legitimate. While many councils tend to spread investments at extremely low level, with varying success, some - like Sandwell here - have chosen to occasionally back an iconic project. Nearby in Birmingham, the success of the developments around Broad Street and the Gas Street Basin - many of them art-related - suggests that places can be reinvented and reinvigorated. Specific art spaces are the anchors for everything in that area.
The people of Sandwell do themselves a great discredit if they simply moan at the cost of regeneration. The Public has already won awards and it has already shown itself to be at the cutting edge, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's sadly typical and rather "21st Century" to have disrespect for anything which which we disagree in the slightest. Perhaps we need to take a more relaxed, tolerant approach towards those with ideas and the motivation to regenerate old industrial areas. Certainly Sandwell has significant social and economic problems, and I suspect that few people objected too strongly to the public investments that saw old factories torn down and replaced by endless steel box sheds and lonely industrial estates. Well The Public is an equivalent arts investment that will also create jobs, create revenue, create taxes, create other artistic opportunities for local people, and make West Bromwich a slightly better place to live. And trust me, the latter is desperately needed.

What The Public needs most from local people is for its friends and detractors to stand together and say "It's here. It's ours. Let's make a success of it." Using art as an anchor for regeneration has worked all over the world - give it a chance in Sandwell.

It's about local pride, folks.

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