Galleries cost up to £44 a visitor

Subsidies queried as £28m arts hub opens

Jonathan Owen
Sunday 25 September 2011 00:00 BST

Years late and millions of pounds over budget – it sounds like a description of a government IT project or delayed defence contract. But no, today marks the opening of the Firstsite arts centre in Colchester – the latest in a swathe of regional arts centres to have been created with Arts Council lottery grants.

Firstsite, which hopes to attract 150,000 visitors in its first year, was due to open in 2008 and cost £16.5m – it actually cost £28m.

It is the latest, and probably the last for a long while, in a series of arts centres to open across England in recent years – many getting huge subsidies despite falling visitor figures.

While there is no disputing their value to visitors, in many cases these are too few, prompting questions about the cost of publicly funded arts. Subsidies at some exhibits, when running costs are set against footfall, can be as high as £44 per visitor, the cost at the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes.

The Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art is the most popular regional venue, with 400,000 visitors a year – down from 628,000 in 2002. It is followed by Nottingham Contemporary, which has seen annual attendance fall from 290,000 to 200,000, but has a subsidy worth £6 per visitor. And the New Art Gallery Walsall had 200,000 visitors last year – down from 236,000 in 2000.

The Public in West Bromwich, which has seen 330,000 visitors since opening in August 2009, cost £72m to create – half the cost of London's Tate Modern. The MK Gallery, which drew just 20,000 people last year, has annual running costs of almost £900,000, described by a spokesperson as "essential" in providing free access to art.

In contrast, Margate's Turner Contemporary has had 238,000 visitors since it opened six months ago. And 245,000 have been to the Hepworth, in Wakefield, since it opened this May. But whether either can sustain these levels of attendance remains to be seen.

Some venues are to get Arts Council funding increases, rather than cuts, over the next few years. One, the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (Mima) will see its funding more than double to £533,000 by 2015 despite visitor numbers dropping from 158,000 in 2007/08 to 128,000 this year.

A Mima spokesperson defended the subsidy as "more than outweighed" by economic and cultural benefits to the area.

But John O'Connell, of the TaxPayers' Alliance, said: "We've seen huge projects costing a fortune lie empty because there was no demand. That means that taxpayers pay a very heavy price for the policy whims of bureaucrats."

Stephen Snoddy, the director of the New Art Gallery Walsall, said: "I've been involved with three lottery projects and the general pattern is the first year is the highest and then at about 18 months the figures dip and level out."

A spokesman from the Arts Council yesterday defended regional arts centres as "one of the great cultural success stories of recent years".

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