SHETLAND’s new and somewhat controversial arts centre Mareel has had a hugely successful first year with more than 150,000 people passing through its doors since its official opening at the end of last August.
Completed 18 months late and well over budget, Shetland Arts said the venue’s success exonerates those who were brave enough to give the go ahead for the £13.5 million project.
Despite its success though, the project seems not entirely out of the woods yet financially.
Earlier in the year the arts agency received a financial injection of more than £1 million, a move that created severe headaches among councillors who had to explain why it was right to pump extra cash into the arts venue at the same time as imposing the biggest service cuts these isles have ever seen.
The extra money paid for some of the bills, but not all. There are still cases pending at the Court of Session and the battle over whose fault it was that local building firm DITT took 18 months longer to complete the building is far from over.
Three weeks ago, the arts agency’s chairman and vice-chairman Danus Skene and Irvine Tait met with two councillors and representatives from Shetland Charitable Trust to “appraise a number of issues, not least the litigation”.
This has quickly made the rounds, but council leader Gary Robinson who was at the meeting, insists that Shetland Arts “has made no formal approach for more money from the council.”
Shetland Arts director Gwilym Gibbons said it was unfortunate if the meeting had been interpreted as a request for further funding.
“We are still involved in completing the capital project. It took longer to build it than we wanted to, but we are hoping that by Christmas we will have completed all the final negotiations and the final account will have been agreed with the contractor,” he said.
He said local people had taken ownership of the arts venue, evidenced by the fact that last week the 100,000th cinema ticket had been sold, while a further 50,000 people came during the first 12 months to enjoy concerts or socialise in the café bar.
“The running of Mareel has been hugely successful. We have seen people coming into the building in their droves,” Gibbons said.
“We believe we have seen record breaking attendances in terms of per head of population to the cinemas.”
He accepts there have been teething problems – particularly with service in the facility’s own bistro – but maintains that these were mainly caused by the building’s massive success.
After all, the business plan had aimed to attract around 39,000 people to Mareel’s two cinemas in the first year, when in reality two and a half times the amount of people came.
Gibbons said that this, in addition to the turnover in the café bar, ensures that Mareel should be able to operate without any further revenue funding, a novelty among art centres in Scotland.
“We as an organisation haven’t got any additional subsidy to run Mareel, which places us in a really interesting place nationally, because we are a new arts venue that is basically living off the income we are generating from inside the venue,” he said.
What is clear, however, is that the arts venue has not won over everybody in the community by far.
Shetland South councillor Allison (Flea) Duncan, a staunch critic of the project from the start, who famously threatened to put a proverbial “bomb” under it, said that so far he had been in Mareel twice, once with a complaint from a constituent and when the Scottish cabinet held a public meeting in the venue, back in July.
“I continue to call it a white elephant because they continue to come with a begging bowl asking for more public money,” he claimed.
“It appears to me that they can’t balance the books from the revenue funding plus the money that they have received from Shetland Islands Council and from elsewhere.”
He added that Shetland would be a better place without Mareel as the millions spent on the music and cinema venue could have been used to mitigate the impact of the current council cuts.
Meanwhile, the full financial facts of the Mareel saga are unlikely to be revealed to the Shetland public anytime soon.
DITT is still trying to find out how they have been portrayed in the secret council report that went before councillors in June.
The council had its knuckles rapped by the Freedom of Information commissioner recently for not replying to the construction firm within the prescribed timeframe, but when the response eventually came it detailed on three pages why the SIC could not release to requested information.
As chairman of the council’s audit and standards committee, Duncan is confident that all this will come out in a report he has requested.
“The audit and standards committee has asked for a full and comprehensive report to come before us at the appropriate time, and that will be held in public.
“I am very interested to see that report and I will keep some of my gunpowder dry until then.”