A strange debate
I have always been a little puzzled by the level of anger directed toward Mareel. After all, this is a building that will, once it opens, be providing services that many have bemoaned the lack of for years: a proper cinema, a proper music venue, recording facilities and more.
True, it cost a lot of money; but half of that money has come from outside Shetland – a £6 million investment in the islands’ economy – which usually would be seen as a positive thing. If every project the council supported could attract that level of external funding, we would be doing very well indeed.
The facts become even more bewildering to me when compared to the public attitudes shown towards sport. Shetland’s swimming pools and leisure centres currently receive £2.5 million per year. This is in addition to the many, many millions involved in building those facilities. These figures absolutely dwarf the sums spent on the arts over the past few decades. Yet where is the outcry? Where is the anger?
Personally I don’t play sport, and I haven’t swum in a Shetland pool since I was in my teens. But nor have I suggested bombing or bulldozing any leisure centres, which are just two of the more unenlightened comments made about Mareel online recently, echoing a similar remark by councillor Allison “Flea” Duncan three years ago.
Interestingly, another councillor, Gary Robinson, is a regular contributor to the Facebook page, “’Mareel’ could a building be more ugly?’ (sic), where grown adults spend time complaining about how unattractive this unfinished structure is and how unsurprised they are that it is still not complete. Robinson has previously declared himself to be at “war” with Mareel (lack of space here prohibits a full discussion of why going to war with a building might prove problematic) and recently fired a few pathetic shots in this battle during a meeting of the Licensing Board (see page 8).
On this occasion councillor Robinson failed to have Mareel’s licence application refused, but it seems likely that he will continue to do whatever he can to stand in the way of the project. Here apparently is a man – an elected representative, entrusted with a high degree of responsibility – who is so opposed to a cinema and arts venue that he would rather see Shetland’s money thrown down the drain than allow it to potentially prove him wrong. That strikes me as a foolish and irresponsible attitude for a councillor.
It is understandable at a time of cuts that money spent on apparently unnecessary things will provoke some controversy. But the degree of ire directed at Mareel and Shetland Arts is unique and difficult to explain.
Is it machismo that is the cause? Sometimes it seems so. There is an underlying sense of hostility from some quarters to all things involving the word “arts”. The mindless phrase “arty farty brigade” has begun to feature prominently in the debate. Sports are okay, the logic seems to go; real men play sports. But anyone who wants a night out doing anything other than getting drunk is frankly a little bit suspicious.
Or perhaps the problem is that, unlike the recreational and amenity trusts, Shetland Arts is not run by a Shetlander. The nature of the personal attacks directed at Gwilym Gibbons certainly suggests that xenophobia has played its part.
Or maybe, just maybe, all this fury really is about architecture. Perhaps all those Facebook contributors really are just concerned that this building is not aesthetically pleasing enough for Lerwick’s beautiful waterfront. I suspect not.
Whatever side of this debate we find ourselves on (and I certainly have my own reservations about some elements of the plans) the fact is that the money has already been spent. Mareel is on its way to completion, and Shetland will make none of its cash back if it fails. Contrary to popular opinion, the building is on a fixed price contract so it cannot (unlike, say, the museum) go over budget. So the only way that we can benefit from this project is if it succeeds.
Surely the wisest and most grown up attitude to take would be to wish Mareel that success – to hope that it achieves its goals of entertaining and educating for many years to come. Surely, at this of all times, we ought to cross our fingers and hope that Mareel was money well spent.