A thaw in relations between Shetland Arts and DITT has prompted pending legal action to be put on hold in the hope that a dispute over the final bills for Mareel can be settled out of court.
Given the cost of lawyers’ fees, such a scenario is in both parties’ interest as they attempt to reach agreement relating to delays which saw the £13.5 million cinema and music venue open 18 months late.
Yesterday, Shetland Arts director Gwilym Gibbons said the two sides were “very constructively negotiating the final construction figure”.
Mr Gibbons said he believed agreement was “very close”, and he is hopeful that everything will be resolved before the end of 2013.
DITT director Peter Tait agreed it “would be nice” if matters could be settled outside of court. He confirmed pending actions at the Court of Session had been “put on hold” while talks took place. “I wouldn’t necessarily say that we are close [to a resolution], but we’re certainly talking,” Mr Tait added.
Some sources have claimed that Shetland Arts recently approached the SIC for more money over and above the complicated £1.1 million lease deal struck with the local authority earlier this year.
The arts agency’s chairman Danus Skene said it was “true that it will be much easier to close the capital account issues with DITT with a little help, but… there is complex dialogue going on on that front, with at this point nothing definitive to say about either sums of money or any need for help”.
Mr Gibbons categorically denied that Shetland Arts had asked for more financial help: “We have not, and we will not, be asking the SIC or Shetland Charitable Trust [SCT] for any money.”
A senior council source said informal discussions had taken place, but no figure was discussed. The source suggested the SIC had done its bit for Mareel and “SCT need to think about doing their bit extra”.
Charitable trust general manager Ann Black would not comment on whether any talks had taken place about Mareel’s construction, stating only that: “The trust’s position hasn’t changed. SCT remains a revenue funder of [Shetland Arts].”
SCT provides £700,000-a-year revenue funding to Shetland Arts to provide arts development. The terms of its grant have not changed since Mareel opened.
Last week Shetland Arts released figures showing that islanders continue to flock to Mareel’s two cinema screens in huge numbers.
Over 100,000 tickets were sold in the first 53 weeks the venue has been open. Mr Gibbons believes that may represent “record-breaking attendances per head of population” – more than four visits per islander since August 2012.
It is more than double the 39,000 aimed for in the 2008 business plan for the venue’s first year. The average of 4.35 admissions per head annually in Shetland compares to the national average of 2.7.
“The level of attendance is extraordinary,” Mr Gibbons said. “We’re delighted that the level of cinema attendance has been sustained beyond the ‘honeymoon period’ of the first few months of opening last year, with Despicable Me 2 [in June] being our second busiest week of cinema since we opened.”
Trustees are now due to approve Shetland Arts’ annual accounts for 2012/13 at its 3rd October board meeting. When those figures are published, it should give a clearer idea of how Mareel has affected the arts agency’s financial position.
Mr Gibbons hopes to release “a whole load of information”, including some “headline figures”, shortly. That will show Mareel is “way ahead in some areas, and slightly behind in some others”.
“We’ve had over 100 ticket events in the main auditorium; the cafe bar is busy seven days a week, so the whole project is going really, really well,” he said.
The arts centre continues to have its ardent critics, however. SIC councillor Allison Duncan, who wanted to put a “bomb” under the project in 2008, told STV News on Wednesday: “You can have as many people wanting to go through the doors as possible, but if they can’t get their financial funding in place and sort it out, the place will close.
“If we give them more money it’s going to have a financial effect on this council when we’re having to take very draconian measures. If we’d had all those millions in the first place, we could have had more compassion for some of the decision[s] we’re making.”