Architecture: Woolly minded artists need not apply: Hard-headed management can mean the difference between success and failure in difficult arts projects. Peter Dormer explains

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The Independent Culture
CREATING new centres for the arts can be a nightmare. In the centre of Cardiff is a fine Victorian library that is too sound to demolish yet has been redundant since 1988. It is one of hundreds of buildings in Britain that have people scratching their heads and asking: 'What can we do with this?'

The idea of converting the library into an art gallery was mooted for years, yet the project kept stalling. No one knew how to determine whether a gallery was needed, whom it would serve, how it would be funded, or what its likely operating costs might be. Multi-million-pound conversions cannot be started on a wing and a prayer.

A specialist management consultancy, AEA, which had worked on the city's new Opera House, was brought in. As a result of its analysis and recommendations, the City of Cardiff had enough information to justify an investment of pounds 3m. Work on the arts centre will begin in 18 months. When complete, it will contain two international-standard galleries, a children's centre, lecture theatre, cafe and information centre.

Management consultants are regarded by many artists and architects as little better than used-car salesmen, and even businesses tend to regard them as an unnecessary expense. But good consultants can make the difference between success and failure, especially in buildings for the arts, which are notoriously difficult to develop properly.

These buildings are monuments to irrationality - that is their point. Architects, however, are employed to be rational. Many buildings for the arts fail to serve the art they house, but the problems begin long before architects become involved, and are caused by poor funding plans. Mistakes are compounded when there is more than one client and no single manager to oversee a project from conception to opening.

Adrian Ellis, formerly a Treasury adviser and chief executive of the Design Museum, London, founded AEA in 1990 to specialise in public-sector arts projects and other non- profit ventures. AEA offers financial research, an analysis of building and architectural requirements and manages projects through to opening. The company also specialises in feasibility studies.

Noel Architects, which is working on the Cardiff library scheme, was surprised by AEA's usefulness and praises its initial report as 'a substantial factual document dealing with visitor numbers, income predictions, staff requirements, architectural proposals' strategic and philosophical aspects and sources of funding'.

Enthusiasts in the arts too often imagine that the virtues of their schemes are obvious to potential sponsors and that money will roll in for the buildings of their dreams.

Caroline Kay, AEA's fund-raising specialist, says that the problems of raising money can help organisations to clarify their plans and address the strengths and weaknesses of a project.

Mr Ellis says his staff do not act as substitutes for architects or any of the other professional disciplines that a project demands. Although he enjoys working with architects, his company does not always recommend the services of a professional. Sometimes a good builder with a design service is sufficient, thereby saving the client money.

He shares the idealism that is inherent in the arts, but says his usefulness, and that of his colleagues, rests in being a 'scourge of wishful thinking'. In self-effacing civil service fashion, he insists that AEA's role should become invisible by the end of a project. 'We are employed to be wise before the event and not clever after it,' he says.

(Photograph omitted)