The nation’s top cultural body is putting added financial heft behind Lerwick’s £12 million cinema and music venue Mareel ahead of its planned opening in early 2012. Creative Scotland this week said it believes the project is of “national and international significance” and will bring major benefits to Shetland and the country as a whole.
The organisation’s director of creative development Iain Munro said he felt Mareel – which has aroused considerable controversy within the community – would be an “outstanding creative venue” and will deliver “major cultural, social and economic benefits to the area”.
Creative Scotland is providing a substantial five-figure sum to allow Shetland Arts to convert part of the upper floor of Mareel into office space for its staff, subject to planning permission. That should allow the organisation to vacate the sizeable Toll Clock office space it rents at a cost of £37,000-a-year.
“We wish to see Mareel as a ‘destination venue’ of national and international significance,” Mr Munro said. “With a year round programme of high quality arts activity Mareel will act as a focal point for the local community and beyond, the extensive facilities will enable the creative community to develop their practice and will offer a space for creative industries in Shetland to grow.”
Creative Scotland has also pledged what Shetland Arts director Gwilym Gibbons described as “significant additional investment to enhance the programming at Mareel”, though no precise figures are available at this stage. The extra cash is a boost to the organisation amid scepticism locally over the venue’s ambitious business plan.
All being well, Mr Gibbons expects staff will have moved out of the Toll Clock by March or April next year. “It will save us a significant amount of revenue and we’re grateful to Creative Scotland, who are providing us with some additional capital,” he said, adding the money will also allow for more educational space within the building.
It is now hoped the big opening date will come sometime in February. Despite various hitches and delays to construction, Mr Gibbons remains confident everything will be up and running in time for the visit of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) at the beginning of March.
Though the entire building is still not technically wind and watertight, that is chiefly because the entrance and foyer area is being used to take fittings and equipment in and out before the final bits of glass are fitted, Mr Gibbons explained.
Elsewhere in the building, corridors are being decorated, electrics and plumbing are being installed and parts of the building are now powered up. “Our contractors DITT are working to hand the building over as quickly as they possibly can,” he said.
A full programme of events to coincide with the North Ness waterfront venue’s long-awaited opening is to be announced in November, when a dedicated Mareel website will also be launched.
The organisation posted a small deficit of £43,702 in 2010/11, almost all of which was caused by spending on “marketing and branding costs, web development and recruitment costs” in the build-up to Mareel’s opening.
Those costs were the reason behind last winter’s unsuccessful approach to Shetland Charitable Trust to see if some of the £100,000 it has pledged towards underwriting running costs in the venue’s first year of operation could be drawn down in 2010/11.
Mr Gibbons said the deficit was “insignificant” in the context of the organisation’s seven-figure annual spending, and will be carried into this financial year. The major consequence of the delay in opening, which had been scheduled for spring this year, was loss of income.
“It’s hard to predict what the level of income there might have been from the Tall Ships, for example,” he said. “It’s really regrettable we weren’t able to be open for that. That’s where
the impact is, in those one-off large-scale events that we may miss.”
A new production manager, Ian Waddell, has moved up from Glasgow and began work earlier this month. Mr Waddell is described by the organisation as having “extensive experience of live touring, sound recording and digital networking” and well-established contacts within the live music industry. Also joining is a new marketing officer, Lisa Ward from Hamnavoe.
Shetland Arts will also be advertising for a customer services and box office manager, a bars and catering manager and a senior sound technician in the next couple of weeks. The successful candidates will start work in January.
The construction programme has been beset by delays which will leave the building opening at least nine months later than anticipated, but Mr Gibbons said the end was now finally in sight.
“There’ll always be things that come up in the last months, but the amount of things that can actually come up now are rapidly moving to the point of there being none, because the work is programmed to completion,” he said.
Shetland Arts is “working within” the £12.1 million construction budget, around half of which has come from the SIC, though some extra fees will be incurred due to the delays.
Alterations to the building have been kept to “an absolute minimum”, though there have been changes to audiovisual infrastructure to keep up with rapidly-changing technology.
Last year’s accounts show that, in addition to £750,000 from Shetland Charitable Trust, the organisation received £156,803 in core funding from Creative Scotland, along with a further £140,000 for one-off projects. It generated total income of £320,000, a third of which came from Shetland Box Office and just over £80,000 from the shop and café at Bonhoga.
Excluding capital funding for Mareel the organisation took in just over £1.45 million, a fall from £1.62 million the previous year. Covering the wages and other costs of its 54 full and part-time staff members swallowed up nearly £800,000 of the budget. Unlike the amenity and recreational trusts, no employee was paid a salary higher than £60,000.
Speaking about the difficult financial climate faced by all public organisations, Mr Gibbons told The Shetland Times he felt the organisation was coping “relatively well”. Income from the charitable trust has been frozen, but he welcomes its move to three-year budgeting which makes it easier to plan ahead.
Although delighted by Creative Scotland’s additional support, he acknowledged Scottish government cutbacks may mean reductions in funding from that source in the years ahead:
“The question is about whether they can maintain that level of increased support to us – we’ll wait to see if that’s the case.”
With next year’s London Olympics having swallowed big chunks of lottery funding in recent years, Mr Gibbons hopes opportunities in that field may “bounce back”. He said: “Shetland Arts will certainly seek opportunities to lever as much of that lottery money into Shetland as possible.”