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Arts blog: Byre straits at theatre in St Andrews | Jerry Sadowitz

Byre Theatre in St Andrews. Picture: Graeme Robertson

Byre Theatre in St Andrews. Picture: Graeme Robertson

  • by ANDREW EATON-LEWIS
 

WHO is to blame for the crisis at the Byre Theatre in St Andrews? Some are keen to pin it on Creative Scotland. But it was the Scottish Arts Council, not Creative Scotland, that stopped the venue’s £160,000 flexible funding back in 2010.

Since then, Creative Scotland has given the venue over £400,000 for various projects, plus a Creative Place Award worth £150,000 – which is why, in another PR embarrassment for the organisation, this year’s Creative Place Awards were launched at the Byre just two days before its closure was announced.

Others suggest the problems go back much further. Writing in Scottish Review this week, Kenneth Roy argued that the Byre “started to fail when the building became more important than what went on inside it”, blaming its expensive new theatre, opened by Sir Sean Connery in 2001, for leaving the Byre in “an increasingly desperate scramble to keep the place viable” when it should have been focused on creating its own shows, as it once had been.

This is a depressingly familiar picture. When the needs of buildings take priority over the needs of artists, things never work out well. I remember all too vividly the relaunch of the CCA in Glasgow. Before, it was a popular hangout for the city’s artistic community, just a couple of minute’s walk from Glasgow School of Art; afterwards, it was an ugly, oppressive space with a cafe rather than a gallery at its centre (and not the kind of cheap and cheerful one that artists can actually afford to eat in). Looking more like a soulless corporate venue than somewhere you’d want to make or see art, it soon became an empty shell of a building and, for a while, looked as if it might close.

A similar thing happened to Tramway – a major arts venue with so little artistic activity going on in it that the City Council wanted to hand it over to Scottish Ballet and, sacrilege, let the company use one of Britain’s most striking exhibition spaces for storage. Only a noisy campaign from the city’s artists prevented this happening. A combination of Scottish Ballet’s activities, NVA’s Hidden Garden, a family-friendly cafe, and the Work Room dance studio, now gives enough people a reason to visit the building for it to continue to prosper. But it could have worked out very differently.

In Musselburgh, meanwhile, the Brunton Theatre, only recently given a £3.4 million refurbishment, is now to lose £50,000 in funding over the next two years. As theatre trustee Roger Knox told the Edinburgh Evening News at the weekend, what is the point of spending millions redesigning a building if you then sabotage its chances of building an audience?

Now, all of the examples listed above are different situations, but there is a pattern here – a lack of joined-up thinking. Building shiny new arts venues is all very well, but these places only survive if they have a strong sense of purpose and identity, with artists at the centre of everything they do. The Byre had that once, and the vigorous campaign to save it suggests that, in recognising what it is in danger of losing, the people of St Andrews will do whatever it takes to save it. Sometimes it takes an emergency to remind you of what’s important.

JERRY V JOURNALISM

JERRY Sadowitz rarely gives interviews, and it’s easy to see why. This week, exasperated at what he saw as a series of lazy and banal questions from the British Comedy Guide, he gave the writer hell.

Here’s his sign-off: “Of all the stupid questions so far, this one is particularly annoying and irrelevant and when I meet you, I propose to write it down on cardboard and nail it to your face.” Recognising comedy gold-dust when they saw it, the Guide published his answers in full. Good for them. Read it at www.comedy.co.uk

 

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