How to build a gallery without going bankrupt
5 lessons from the Public
A “gross waste of public money” or a lesson that will save us millions? A new report on the Public art centre shows that government should be allowed to make mistakes too.
The UK is full of how-to guides for people building new galleries, museums or theatres. There are piles of examples of ‘best practice’, case studies, and examples to inspire.
The Public, a large gallery and venue, got off to a good start. It has a striking design by starchitect Will Alsop. Yet it opened in 2009 two years behind schedule and at twice the estimated cost. And a year later its operating company, The Public Gallery, went into administration. What went wrong? The report, by Anthony Blackstock, helps us draw five lessons for future gallery-builders.
- Don’t bury your head in the sand. ACE ignored their own concerns about funding gaps and the leadership of the developers and continued to throw money into the pot.
- Assess your plans regularly. “ACE agreed to fund a building that was not fit for purpose,” states the report. “It should have judged that this was the case and demanded a radical downscaling in 1999/2000.” So you should remember to review your plans at each iteration.
- Don’t go all in. Having not reviewed their plans and now too many million in to the project, the arts council “apparently found it politically impossible not to continue its support in the teeth of every setback”. It’s a good idea to leave yourself an exit route.
- Avoid mission creep. ACE is accused of overplaying their own role, taking on new responsibilities and crossing the line from funder to developer. “It must not act as the shadow promoter of a project”, Blackstock writes.
- Learn from your mistakes. It’s a brave decision to have an esteemed accountant pick over your own flaws independently - and he agrees: “I find the arts council is properly chastened by its involvement in this deeply troubled process and outcome.
Compared to this figure, the £32m [40m Euros] ACE spend on the Public is tiny. Isn’t it worth failing once in a while if you learn from that and produce a better result next time? After all, if you don’t make mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough.