No more playing to the gallery for Midlands councils

Walsall New Art Gallery
Image caption Walsall's New Art Gallery cost £21m to build and opened in 2000. It was one of the Millennium Projects along with Tate Modern and the British Museum Great Court

Who can tell me what exactly is the Garman Ryan Collection?

If you can't, you probably have that in common with roughly 99.999% recurring of the population.

Need a clue?

It includes the work of, among others, Delacroix, Ruskin, Sickert and Freud.

None the wiser? Maybe not. But better-informed.....

So here goes:

The Garman Ryan Collection comprises 365 paintings, drawings and sculptures donated to the people of Walsall in 1973 by Kathleen Garman, the widow of the sculptor Jacob Epstein, and his pupil Sally Ryan, who had grown up in the Black Country.

Image caption The Public in West Bromwich was axed by Sandwell Council after the council could no longer justify its cost

For 26 long years this internationally-recognised collection was tucked away in the Reference Room of Walsall Library. But after a concerted campaign for it to be showcased in a setting befitting its importance, Walsall's purpose-built a New Art Gallery was opened, fanfares blaring, by the Queen in May 2000.

It had cost £21 million of public money, mostly in the form of National Lottery grants.

In return came confident predictions that it would be the catalyst for an epic renewal of the town centre, embracing its canal basin, much in the way that the rejuvenated Gas Street Basin had proved such a tonic for nearby Birmingham.

Walsall felt entitled to believe it was in good company: other towns and cities had tried and tested the concept of civic cultural regeneration gambits. Down the road in West Bromwich, plans were well advanced for the £72 million digital creative centre, 'The Public', which was to open, two years late, in 2008.

But what had seemed to be very much the vogue in the 'noughties met its reality check soon enough. In the roll call of casualties, the first, and still the most spectacular, was 'The Public' itself, axed by Sandwell Council who could no longer justify the £30,000 in subsidies each week in the face of dwindling visitor numbers.

It gives me no pleasure whatsoever to report that Walsall's magnificent gallery now faces the real possibility of going the same way.

After the financial crash has come the austerity "squeeze" on public spending. Our local authorities' vaulting ambitions have given way to the apparently unending grind of budgeting for the care of their aging populations while making sure the bins still get emptied.

Image copyright Press Association
Image caption The Library of Birmingham is attracting 2.5million visitors per year. But where are the visitors to Walsall?

Walsall's Labour-controlled council proposes to axe its £470,000 a year subsidy to the New Art Gallery. This would mean, in turn, that Arts Council England could no longer make good the loss, leaving the town's first major new public building since its Victorian Town Hall facing the distinct threat of closure in four years' time.

"How can this be?" I asked myself when the realisation dawned. I had bought wholesale into the grand vision of a 'cultural treasure trove' which was bound to be a prime attraction for local people and would also bring arts aficionados flocking to the town with their wallets open.

I was even more surprised to discover in a recent article in 'The Sunday Times' (13th November 2016) by the BBC's former Arts Correspondent Rosie Millard that the gallery's annual visitor numbers, far from being calculated in the millions I had expected, were actually running at a paltry 172,000 a year. Compare that with the new Library of Birmingham's 2.5 million visitors-a-year which puts it among Britain's top ten attractions.

I realise I am being controversial when I say this, but maybe that's the difference between a mid-sized town and one of the UK's most-visited cities outside London. Discuss!

This week's planned public protest in Walsall against the threatened funding cuts is a relatively rare display of public support for the New Gallery: one of my colleagues at BBC WM found it hard work finding people at street level in the town who knew or cared much about it.

A prominent figure in the arts community told me privately: "It's a pity Walsall is not a tourist destination, and never will be: local people aren't bothered about the gallery and the people who are bothered don't go to Walsall".

Ouch!

If that's got your hackles rising, I hope you'll join us for this weekend's "Sunday Politics Midlands" when we'll have more on this.

We'll be in our usual 11.00 slot on BBC One this Sunday 4 December 2016.