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Arts agency in good health, new chair says

Shetland Arts' new chairman Danus Skene

THE NEW chairman of Shetland Arts has pledged to reduce the organisation’s dependence on the public purse.

Danus Skene was unanimously elected chairman of the arts development agency after former chairman Jim Johnston resigned to leave Shetland and take up a temporary post as an educational advisor to the government of Malaysia.

The former teacher who stood as an SNP candidate during the council elections last year takes over at a time when the agency is still mired in controversy and speculation over the construction of the £13 million cinema and music venue Mareel.

On Monday Shetland Islands Council met for six hours to debate a report following a forensic examination of the building project which was tied to agreeing a bridging facility of £600,000 in December.

Mareel is bigger than people realise, Shetland Arts believe. Photo SN

After the meeting councillors issued a statement saying they had agreed a plan “to secure the future of the Mareel building as a centre for education, culture and the arts”.

Confidentiality surrounds the nature of the agreement, and on Thursday the arts agency’s main funder Shetland Charitable Trust held back from handing over its annual grant of almost £700,000 until the negotiations were finalised.

It may take some time for the complex details surrounding the building project to be resolved after it was completed 18 months late and £1.5 million overbudget, forcing Shetland Arts to request more cash from the council and other funders.

A legal dispute is ongoing between Shetland Arts and contractor DITT about who is responsible for the delays and who should bear the cost.

On Friday Skene said that now the future of the Mareel building had been secured, the organisation could concentrate on managing it successfully.

“Mareel has not in any way increased the dependency of Shetland Arts on the public purse,” he insisted.

“But I am absolutely convinced that Mareel can and will do with lessening public support and I am determined that we should manage to wean ourselves off such high levels of dependency.

“We need to increase our income stream and manage ourselves well and that can and will happen.”

He said that over the past five years Shetland Arts had been able to double its turnover to £2 million despite a significant reduction in grant funding, and its finances for the day-to-day running of the organisation were healthy.

It employs 28 full time equivalent staff who keep up a wide range of cultural activities throughout Shetland, with funding from a range of sources, including the Scotish government.

Mareel opened in August and has already had an estimated 75,000 visitors so far, with an even split between town and country residents, well exceeding its original business plan.

Skene said he did not think people in Shetland realised this was “a centre of excellence” which would boost employment and attract people to Shetland in the future.

“I think Mareel is bigger than many people realise,” he said.

Next week theatre manager Holly Burford, from London’s South Bank Centre will take over as Shetland Arts head of operations.

Her first priority will be “drive through a series of changes and improvements” following extensive critical feedback from customers, especially about the café/bar.

Skene has been vice chairman of Shetland Arts for the past two years. The new vice chairman is teacher Irvine Tait.

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