Brian Ferguson: Overarching need for Arches solution

Picture: John Devlin

Picture: John Devlin

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LIKE many others, I have been reflecting on my first experience of The Arches in the wake of the Glasgow arts centre’s surprise announcement over its closure following the loss of its late-night licence.

I’m not sure of the year, though it was certainly more than two decades ago, and I can’t even remember too much about the show, such is the passage of time.

What I do know for sure is that I attended my very first piece of serious theatre that night.

Strangely enough, that was that was the last play I saw at The Arches, with the many subsequent visits being for live music events, some of which morphed into club nights.

It is to the huge credit of those involved in The Arches that the plaudits for the venue in the last few days and the desperate pleas for it to be pulled out of administration have come from the music, theatre and clubbing scenes in almost equal measures.

Numerous comment pieces and blogs have thrown up a simmering mixture of dismay, anger, bewilderment and recrimination.

Most of that has been directed towards Glasgow City Council, despite the authority being largely helpless over the fate of a venue inextricably linked to the city’s artistic success since it opened in 1991.

On the face of it, the authorities in Glasgow must shoulder collective responsibility for what is described on its official Unesco City of Music website as “one of Europe’s foremost venues.”

But it is worth pointing out that the Glasgow Licensing Board is an entirely separate entity from the council and has come under intense pressure to act over The Arches by Police Scotland, which appears to have taken an entirely different approach to the venue from its predecessor, Strathclyde Police.

The board was told in no uncertain terms that The Arches was causing the new force more concern than any other in the city for levels of drug-taking and warned of “potentially lethal consequences” if action was not taken.

Unfortunately for the many supporters of The Arches, it is this hard-line position and the force’s “zero tolerance” stance over substance abuse in licensed premises which confronts the Scottish Government, which is coming under pressure from artists to intervene over the venue, which won a new three-year funding deal with Creative Scotland only last autumn.

There are many unanswered questions over this affair, including why The Arches dropped its new 21-and-over age restriction just months after a fatality, whether it was being singled out unfairly by the police, what more could have been done by the government to prevent it going into administration and why a much-publicised appeal was suddenly dropped.

But the biggest questions of all - for the city, the government and its arts quango - are how much of a financial bail-out is needed to get the venue up and running again, whether this would be an appropriate use of public money and who is up to the task of leading such a bail-out.

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