Brian Ferguson: Use of Byre Theatre questionable

Byre Theatre
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FOR an organisation left bruised and battered by events of the previous six months, Creative Scotland made a reasonable fist of cranking up the feel-good factor at its first major event of the year in St Andrews last week.

There couldn’t have been much enthusiasm at the turn of the year for staging its “Creative Place Awards”, one of the most high-profile initiatives dreamed up in its brief existence.

Yet there was a discernible air of optimism at the town’s Byre Theatre as three different parts of the country were named among the nation’s most creative places.

The honour for Pathhead, a little-known musical hub in Midlothian, seemed the stand-out, with the news emerging at the height of Celtic Connections where several of its denizens were appearing in a clutch of high-profile concerts and about to compete at the Radio 2 Folk Awards.

Kilmarnock’s honour – little more than a year after controversial documentary The Scheme was honoured at the Scottish Baftas – seemed to offer the chance to exorcise many of the demons associated with the so-called “poverty porn” programme.

Like many of the weird and wonderful projects funded by Creative Scotland, it is easy to be cynical about the awards. Surely, if you scratch the surface hard enough, you could find evidence of “creativity” in almost every corner of Scotland. Stick a pin on the map and I wager I could show you its creative side.

It almost seems ludicrous to see Orkney shortlisted as a creative place, when it has had cutting-edge festivals for decades and cherished facilities like Stromness’s Pier Arts Centre.

Yet the way the arts sector appears to have embraced the awards suggests they may have a reasonable shelf life. Even being nominated is probably overdue for recognition for those promoting the arts for little financial reward and from shoestring budgets.

Unfortunately for Creative Scotland, within just two days of the awards, it was facing a new crisis when the very venue that had hosted the awards suddenly closed its doors, facing liquidation.

The news about the Byre Theatre, which emerged on Friday night, appeared to be a bolt from the blue for the arts scene.

There appeared no warning for the centre’s staff, promoters who had booked shows into the venue, or punters who had forked out for tickets.

Many of those who took to social media sites to express their shock and dismay had a simple question – how on earth did it come to this?

The reason why the Byre was hosting the awards ceremony is that St Andrews had been one of the main beneficiaries from the same scheme in 2012, winning an award of £150,000.

In the official announcement of this year’s winners, Byre chief executive Alan Tricker said: “Being a recipient of the award has been tremendous for the Byre and St Andrews. Having the awards ceremony at the Byre closes the circle for us. It is the end of a successful and vibrant year.”

Now, the Byre’s board admits to “poor results”, that the new venue has never covered its costs since it opened and has suffered “acute” problems making its finances stack up since losing a crucial grant three years ago.

I’m sure I’m not the only one to have noticed that grant – lost in the handover from the Scottish Arts Council – was worth £160,000 a year.

The Byre has made it clear that both Creative Scotland and Fife Council were consulted before the process of liquidation began.

There are a number of pressing questions. Why was the theatre’s precarious situation not made public before things reached such a late stage? Why was emergency funding to shore up the situation not forthcoming from either the quango or the council? Who knew what and when at the Byre about a real threat of closure?

Creative Scotland moved quickly last year to stave off a cash crisis at Dundee Rep after a loss-making tour of the musical Sunshine on Leith.

Did the Byre’s management do too little, too late, before the walls started closing in? Was it beyond saving?

The reality is that theatres like the Byre need a reasonable amount of subsidy to survive. Clearly Creative Scotland – an organisation not short of cash – has many questions to answer over its demise. With a public campaign gaining momentum, one of those is whether it can now help retrieve the current situation.