Theatre in Wales

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Welsh arts centre 'a tacky design hell'     

The Arts Council of Wales has been severely criticised for allowing nearly £9m to be poured into the Centre for the Visual Arts in Cardiff, arguably the most ill-conceived millennium project to make it off the drawing board.

A report published today by the auditor general for Wales, Sir John Bourn, shows that not only did the Arts Council itself hand over £2.3m in lottery money without proper checks, but that it ignored the warnings of its own inspectors that all was far from well.

The centre, carved out of the shell of the city's vast Victorian library, was condemned as "an ugly, tacky design hell" by some art critics, who felt trying to marry contemporary art with its child oriented Fantasmic games floor - condemned as "a saddo attempt to rival Toys 'R' Us" - did not work.

It also had only one continuous unbroken wall on which artworks could be hung, a fatal flaw in a building supposed to be used as a gallery.

A little over a year after its grand opening in September 1999, when its promoters claimed it gave Cardiff the potential to rival Barcelona as a hot-bed of creativity, the centre was forced to close having attracted less than a fifth of the 250,000 visitors predicted. The auditor found that not only were the centre's projected admission figures wildly optimistic, they were drawn from comparisons with other galleries, museums and parks which did not charge - its Centre for the Visual Arts had a £3.50 admission fee.

More worryingly, the centre ignored its own research suggesting that, compared with the national average, the people of south Wales were a third less likely to visit art galleries. The catchment area was found to have some of the most deprived people in the country.

"The Arts Council did not question these assumptions and did not address the need for contingency plans in the case of the targets not being met. They allowed the application to go through on poor quality-cost estimates, and total costs later rose from £6.2m to over £8m," the report said.

Sir John found that after the hopelessly inflated visitor forecasts were made "some major changes to specification were effected by the centre without the Arts Council's knowledge". Sir John added: "In another case - the shift away from blockbuster exhibitions of well known artists towards contemporary modern artists - they did not question the change despite the likely impact on box office appeal."

Clear warnings were also ignored by the Arts Council when it became apparent that the project, which was in significant debt before it even opened, was in trouble.

"The Arts Council's external assessor alerted them to the lack of marketing strategy, the failure to attract private sponsorship and the absence of experience in running visitor attractions among the centre's management team," Sir John said. "However, they did not address these problems, which was a condition of further grant awards."

He revealed that £20,000 of the centre's assets, mostly IT equipment and building materials, were missing or could not be accounted for.

"It is very disappointing that this attempt to establish a contemporary art gallery in the heart of Cardiff failed," he said. "The project was badly planned, and the assessment and the management of risk was inadequate."

Last night the Arts Council of Wales said that in 1999 it had revised all of its procedures relating to large, complex capital projects. "This will help ensure future projects are comprehensively evaluated and potential problems [are] recognised at an early stage." A spokeswoman said they were restructuring the organisation after the auditor's findings.
Guardian On line  
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Fiachra Gibbons, arts correspondent
Thursday, November 15, 2001back



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