The Arts Centre - How a well used arts venue was lost

The Society's newsletter for Autumn 1972 reported on the conversion of the old Post Office in Bird Street to a permanent art centre. Sadly part of the building had been founded on the peat which borders Minster Pool and the subsidence cracks which appeared eventually led to the building being comdemned, boarded up and supported by scaffolding.

The following extracts from the Society's newsletters tell the story.

[February 1999]

A personal view from Susan Rear - "I am one of a group of 'antis' opposed to the re-building of the Arts Centre - we are not chauvinists nor anti-modern architecture reactionaries - we just believe that the building as planned is completely wrong for the site. The plot, alongside the Pool, on one of Lichfield's old streets opposite the Cathedral, beside the Park and across the old bridge, means that it is being put into what must be some sort of Conservation area, and as such it is out of proportion, has not even a pitched roof and is supported by ugly poles. It may be fine beside the new College but not to replace an old Post Office built of brick and stone and of good proportions. I hope many of you will support my view".

[April 1999]

"To be or not to be, that is the question" and well may it be asked! As a result of the Society's representations to the Council following the planning application for a new Arts Centre to be built on the site of the existing, Alan Thompson and I were invited to meet with Sue Smith, Head of Tourism and Economic Development Services, and Michael Rushe, the project architect. Members will recollect that the Society's reservations and concerns were considered of such significance that the planning application could not be supported. I regret to have to report to members that little, if anything, came out of that meeting that would justify a change of the Society's view. Consequently I shall be writing to the Council to confirm and reinforce the Society's opposition to the present proposal.

It is important to pause and consider the Society's overall position regarding an arts centre and the development of the old Post Office site. It is my view that the whole of the membership [and indeed the vast majority of the public] support the Council's efforts to provide Lichfield with an Arts Centre facility. The Council is to be congratulated in the lead it has taken and supported in its endeavours. The design of any building on the site is, however, a far more contentious matter and I accept that whether the design is modern or traditional, no matter the decision, it will lead to considerable criticism. I believe however, that the old Post Office site is possibly the one site within the built up area of the City Centre that could and probably would benefit from a modern design in preference to the brick and tiled roof approach.

The Society's position is therefore, quite clear - support for an arts centre facility and support of the view that a modern structure can be accommodated on the old Post Office site.

The discussions with Sue Smith and Michael Rushe were wide and varied but as I stated previously produced little that Alan and I considered positive with one exception that I will comment upon later. It was confirmed that since the competition, changes to the design have taken place leading to the planning proposals. These changes were, on the whole, related to a reduction in areas of the building apparently related to a reduction in cost.

The Society's main criticism is that the building is unnecessarily complicated and does not adequately work. The external ramp, for instance, would appear to be an unnecessary complication and hence, expense - it is, after all, a flat site. The view over Minster Pool is denied by the curved wall to anyone taking coffee, that is unless one is 2.4m [8ft.] high. Michael Rushe explained the purpose of the ramp was to gain height to provide a good view of the Pool just before entering the building. If the Pool view warrants a ramp, ie. it is worth looking at, why not take maximum advantage of the view not only from the outside but also from inside? As I understand the explanation, the hiding of the view is an 'architectural tease' - when inside sipping your coffee over a jam doughnut you know the Pool is there but can't quite see it. Hmm! All is not lost, to compensate there is an excellent view of the public toilets! If we must have an 'architectural tease', omit the ramp thus giving a limited view at the point of entry [that is the 'tease'] and allow the full vista of the Pool to explode into view from the inside.

Buildings cannot satisfactorily function if support and service areas are inadequate and our concerns were firmly expressed. Service space for the exhibition or education areas appears completely lacking, dressing rooms are extremely small adequate only for casts with very few numbers, back of stage storage and work areas are close to non-existent, and where are the support areas to the bar facility? In respect of the bar facility, a brewery has indeed been consulted and, no doubt, will have confirmed that beer can indeed be stored in the beer store and can be dispensed from the servery. The brewery however, will not have been concerned with any other aspects, least of all where bottled beers, wine, spirits, soft drinks, empties, etc. etc. are to be stored. There is no space allocated for this usage. If members think they have heard this all before, then yes, you have - these are the very faults that have bedevilled the Civic Hall since it was erected.

The response to our comments was hardly encouraging - our observations were not contradicted. Michael Rushe advised that adequate facilities could only be provided if extra money could be found and certainly Alan and I felt there was an air of resignation to those deficiencies.

May I now turn to the income and expenditure aspect of the project ie. the financial viability of operating an arts centre. I do not accept that art in any form can be free, someone at the end of the day has to pay, nor do I accept that public facilities must be run on purely commercial lines. There is to be found a happy medium between the two whereby public subsidy can be harnessed with commercial thinking and awareness - to the benefit of all. Sue Smith confirmed that a marketing plan is being prepared; commercial thinking and awareness would have seen this plan produced before the competition brief was being formulated. At this stage, the planning application stage, nobody can categorically state that this proposal is financially viable without assuming public subsidy at a level that, at the present time, cannot be determined.

The proposal for an Arts Centre must, by definition, assume modest income for its basic usage, ie, exhibitions, theatre, etc. and again by definition, assume areas of the building will be under used - not every week will the theatre be occupied. It follows that not only will income be low, it will also be irregular. It is clear, and Sue Smith did confirm, that activities would be subsidised. I believe that most members of the Society will support this position, providing every effort has been made to produce income from other resources.

When pressed on the subject of income, running and maintenance costs, repair sinking funds, etc. the reply appeared to suggest reliance would be placed heavily on weddings, parties and conferences - hardly the stuff upon which to base the future of this high tech building costing 1.5M. There is nothing in the proposal that is going to produce significant income on a day to day basis - commercially there should be. For instance, re-locate the Tourist Office within the Arts Centre - such compatible usage, brings people in with spin off for coffee, etc., utilises the building on a daily basis and provides an inherent, reliable, measurable amount of income.

Do I hear someone saying that no space is available? No space for decent sized dressing rooms, no space to store bottles of wine, no space for decent sized education areas, exhibition areas no bigger than the ramp and split on two levels, no space to locate a source of finance - perhaps the old Post Office site is the wrong site for this venture.

I hope that a Lichfield Arts Centre, will be successful in seeking and obtaining grants to promote the arts. My concern is that without good quality income security those grants will have to be used elsewhere.

I am, however pleased to report that one of the Society's reservations has been satisfactorily resolved and that is the question of who will be responsible for running the Arts Centre. A very firm undertaking was given that it will be the District Council's responsibility only.

In the Society's representations little was written of the appearance of the building nor during the above discussions.

It is irrelevant what the building looks like, it could have the quality of the College Technology Building - the fact is the proposed building does not work, does not provide the necessary facilities and does not have the stamp of a financially viable arts centre, it is therefore, overall an unacceptable design proposal.

There are many other aspects which were not been included in the Society's representations nor discussed at the above meeting that should be considered in assessing this proposal. I suggest but one for members to consider.

What facilities in these proposals are the citizens of Lichfield being given for the 1.5M outlay that do not already adequately exist at other locations within the City? Apart from 68 sq.m. of dedicated exhibition space I would suggest the answer is - NOTHING.

In summarising my feelings and those of Alan, the meeting with Sue Smith and Michael Rushe left us both feeling frustrated. It appeared to both of us that the architect was really not prepared to listen being there merely on a public relations exercise.

Further the impression was given, rightly or wrongly, that notwithstanding the accepted deficiencies of the building, the project is so far down the line and the Council so committed, that it is too late to reconsider and the situation is 'take it or leave it.'

This proposal is an important step in the life of Lichfield - we all must do everything to ensure that when an Arts Centre is built it provides the right facilities, is of a design that respects the inherent qualities of the City, is financially viable and most of all has the respect and support of the vast majority of people. This proposal fails to meet any of those criteria and should be abandoned.

Little of what has been written above constitutes grounds for objection to the planning application - it does however, require rejecting. To this end the Committee have asked me to ensure every member of the Planning Committee of the District Council receives a copy of this article in the hope that one of their number will, on the night, be strong enough to propose rejection and a reassessment of the whole question of the Arts Centre. I hope, cometh the hour cometh the man!

David Duffy

[December 1999]

Art Provision in Lichfield

The Society was represented by Alan Thompson at the Consultation Day at the Guildhall on 27th November. Also present was a wide selection of people from the Lichfield Arts Community, with Cll'r Pat Hodgetts, Mrs Sue Smith, Head of Leisure Services and a group of architects at the table.

It soon became apparent that the real discussion was how best to spend 4.7m on refurbishing the Civic Hall, rather than truly addressing the needs of all the forms of art, well represented at the meeting; in other words the question was far from open from the start.

This was indeed pointed out in the Society's written response to the day. Society member Steve Sanders had indicated the unsuitability of the 'new' Civic Hall for a really well focused visual arts programme, and had made a strong plea for the Bird Street site to be rebuilt for the function - this was to be taken up in our response.

Given that there is 4.7m to spend, it should be possible to divide this sum to provide an improved Civic Hall for, say, 3m, and a visual arts centre at Bird Street for the remaining 1.7m. This would prevent the bolting together of two mutually incompatible building types - the 'theatre' and the active visual arts 'gallery / workshop'.

Our report was very concerned at the lack of a valid business plan for this expanded complex. At no time during the meeting was there a confident and realistic appraisal of financial viability - in fact this was left hanging in the air and is the most worrying deficiency of the project, almost an open invitation to any wandering white elephant that's around! Finally we cast doubts as to the compatibility of the official and the art's community's ethos and temperament and how they would get together. Time is not so short that these very important matters can't be fundamentally reassessed and changed to a very much better outcome indeed.

Alan Thompson

[April 2000]

The Arts Centre - Is it or Isn't it ?

Members will recollect that the re-building of the Bird Street Arts Centre was abandoned following the change in political colours of the District Council at the last Local Elections - new plans for the arts were to be brought forward, we were told by the incoming party. I presume most of us, naturally assumed, that new proposals for an Arts Centre would eventually be presented.

The District Council invited representatives of the Society to a meeting on 29th March to discuss proposals for the re-modelling of the Civic Hall. I am aware that many members would enthusiastically welcome and wish to see an all embracing arts centre established in Lichfield - I am afraid however, that the current scheme, as presented, does not provide that facility.

The Council, for its part, is not suggesting it is providing an 'Arts Centre' - the proposal is for the re-modelling of the Civic Hall. I am sure that all members welcome the fact that after almost 30 years upgrading, modernising, improvements are at last being considered.

This is however, rightly or wrongly, a significant change in emphasis by the Council and raises many questions about its approach and attitude to the Arts. What is the policy on accommodating the non-performing arts? Has the Council abandoned the establishment of a "multi-arts" arts centre? What is the future of the Bird Street Arts Centre site? These are important issues - I have therefore, written to the Head of Leisure Services seeking answers to these points. I will report further on these matters in future newsletters.

Alan Thompson gave a short presentation to the Committee on 3rd April to explain the proposals and comment on various aspects of the scheme. The Committee took the only realistic view that it could take - to support, in principle, the proposal to re-model the Civic Hall.

There are areas of the proposals that do give cause for concern; some aspects are difficult to comprehend; others appear not to have been thoroughly thought through. The Society's support therefore, is qualified and it is to be hoped that its suggestions and observations will, at least be considered by the Council.

Below is a summary of the comments made by Alan Thompson on behalf of the Society in the formal response to the Council. I would however, welcome members views on the future of arts provision in Lichfield and in the light of the above proposal where exactly do we go from here - your comments will be invaluable in formulating Society policy.

David Duffy

Summary of the response to the Council

In recognising the necessity for radical improvement we have made suggestions that we hope will enhance its use; our guidelines being that internal areas should be as flexible as possible giving opportunity of use to the broadest spectrum of interests and end-users.

We first suggested that all the auditorium seating should be removable to accommodate dinners, conferences or trade fairs. We expressed the view that the upper foyer should be designed for multiple community use: ie. meetings, recitals, readings, children's use or exhibition space and not just the theatre refreshment area indicated on the drawing. We questioned the suitability of the workshop studio to serve as an occasional gallery/exhibition space particularly in respect to lighting and time tabling of events.

Observations have been made on the design and the materials proposed in the external refurbishment of the building together with the view that the entrance hall frontage was unnecessarily complex and requires simplifying. We suggested that a model should be made to assist in the design process. Finally, we expressed the belief that financial viability could only be achieved if the community at large felt that it was involved with the project and hence, owned the complex.

Alan Thompson

[May 2003]

The Arts Centre and New Minster House - A personal view

The Centre was the regular meeting place for the Lichfield Players, Lichfield Society of Artists, the Folk Dance Club, R.S.P.B., Lichfield Civic Society and a host of other organisations and the events they hosted. The L.D.D.A. and the Arts Centre Club arranged visits from small professional and amateur groups, there was music from such favourites as the Medici Quartet, pianist Peter Katin, brass ensembles and choirs; drama from Brum Studio, Coventry Belgrade Studio, Mull Little Theatre, The Mikron Theatre, Shared Experience and many more. There were Art exhibitions, art sales, dance, poetry, demonstrations, workshops, book days and discos ... and, of course, there was always coffee on Saturday mornings in the bar-lounge when everyone interested in the many activities met to chat and exchange ideas.

Everything was quite small scale and run by volunteers. The old building - built as a Post Office - was less than perfect but it provided a home for a wealth of activities ... it was an arts centre and a great social centre for Lichfield. The Garrick may cater for some of these things, if it isn't too expensive, but many are gone, leaving just memories.

But what of the wonderful site of the old Post Office alongside Minster Pool? Two floors of offices, a Tourist Office and yet another restaurant in Bird Street! This seems an extraordinary use for such a delightful corner of Lichfield and a very inadequate replacement for the old building.

Mary Lister