The Prickly Pear: The National Centre For Popular Music in Sheffield

The Distance Between an Idea and its Fruition at The National Centre for Popular Music, Sheffield.

All major construction projects start with an idea that is driven by one person or a collection of like minds. Tim Strickland’s idea for The National Centre for Popular Music (NCPM) was enthusiastically received by a steering group at Sheffield City Council looking for a flagship addition for a new Cultural Industries Quarter (CIQ) planned to rejuvenate a rundown area of the city.

An idea with strident political backing quickly becomes a project in need of funding. A non-profit company, Music Heritage Limited (MHL) was created to take ownership of the project, its board made up of cultural leaders, musicians, representatives from Sheffield City Council and a new Chief Executive – Stuart Rogers, a successful theatre manager. Initial grants totaling £1.5m were awarded from the National Lottery to develop a brief through feasibility studies and a business plan. These first reports were convincing enough to attract major funding from the Arts Council (£11m) and private investment.

An open architectural competition was run by the RIBA, with the contract awarded to Branson Coates Architecture. The winning design was a striking assemblage of four metallic drums expressed simply in plan form as four circles around a cross. The building started on site in June 1997, and was completed in September 1998 on time and on budget. Reviews in the architectural press were flattering.

So far so good – to get a major cultural project such as this instigated, funded, and completed with good will was a major achievement. However, this apparent success was short-lived. The NCPM suffered significant financial losses in its first year of operation. Projected targets of 400,000 visitors a year were not met. By October 1999, a new Chief Executive had been appointed to run the Centre who in turn quit in January 2000 to be replaced by City Council Director. By this point MHL were in administration, unable to pay their creditors, and the NCPM was finally closed in July 2000 just 22 months into its existence. The building was sold to Yorkshire Forward for £1.8 million in July 2002 and was refurbished for Sheffield Hallam University as a student’s union building.

The National Centre for Popular Music was not an idea without success. It assembled the required political will to make the project real. It utilised the strength of an engaging concept to attract good funding. The construction phase of the project was difficult but ultimately triumphant, and the end result was a building with merit that people responded well to.

Perhaps the failure was in the idea itself – not necessarily the concept of the NCPM but its function within the CIQ in a run-down area of Sheffield.

The division of urban districts into strictly defined use classes can sometimes be the undoing of the city. It can restrict diversity and prevent other potentially successful functions from flourishing.The idea behind the NCPM may not have been such a bad one, but once in the hands of politicians, city planners and cultural bureaucrats it became a different entity to serve a different purpose – a catalyst for urban regeneration and a regional talisman for central government arts funding. Left to its own devices and with modest financial backing it might have found a home elsewhere – a different place or a different city. It might have started small in a refurbished building and expanded naturally as its reputation spread and its management gained experience. It was set up to fail by people who had their eyes on different prizes when all it really needed to do was celebrate popular music in a way that people could relate to and enjoy. Did those involved lose sight of this primary purpose early in the journey? If so, then this could be the reason the golden apple became a prickly pear.

Here we go round the prickly pear Prickly pear prickly pear Here we go round the prickly pear At five o’clock in the morning.

Between the idea And the reality Between the motion And the act Falls the Shadow

Between the conception And the creation Between the emotion And the response Falls the Shadow

Between the desire And the spasm Between the potency And the existence Between the essence And the descent Falls the Shadow

The Hollow Men, T.S.Elliot (edit).


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