Sunday, December 16, 2012

My Shetland Times Spaekalation column: Mareel's finances - more transparency please, and some remorse

SPAEKALATION 14 December 2012

As printed in The Shetland Times

I didn’t count the exact audience numbers at last weekend’s Aidan Moffat and Bill Wells gig. But the Mareel auditorium, its magical electrical seating in place, was a long way from half full. I’d say 50-odd paying customers. Insufficient to cover even the cost of press advertising for what was one of the most powerful and moving performances I’ve seen by a visiting act here.

We really enjoyed our night out in the metropolis of Coalfishreek last Saturday. Susan had a day off and was able to go Christmas shopping, fail to buy a bed (though she could have stolen it, as no living sales staff were in evidence at the store in question) attend the launch of the excellent Kollifirbolli’s album and consume coffee in at least three different outlets. A fantastic meal at Monty’s and then we were off to Mareel - again, in her case, as the Kollifirbolli album launch was held there.

But inevitably, talk in the Squinty Box was all about the £600,000 council lifeline to ShetArts  (”what do you get when you cross a grant with a loan? Answer  - a groan”) whether it was meant to cover capital expenditure or running costs, and what was going to happen next.

That major issues remain  for Mareel is not in question. I have already made my position clear: It is crucial for the future of arts education, cultural development, for the social and indeed economic future of Shetland that Mareel remains open and becomes the thriving, vibrant fulcrum of  the arts it can be. But it remains under threat, and some developments over the past week have not been encouraging.

There is great goodwill in the isles for the Mareel project, but Shetland Arts seems dangerously close to taking that for granted. Because there is also - and a look at any of the comments pages or online messageboards will confirm this - rage, confusion and virulent hatred. The statement issued by ShetArts in the wake of the council’s groan award, in which DITT’s  handling of the building contract was attacked in not so much forthright words as abusive ones, was terribly ill-advised. It has been explained to me that it was a strategic move aimed at establishing ShetArts’ legal position in the dispute with DITT, and that the aim is to recover all money which may be owed to the council, pay it back and stand, so to speak,  in glistening triumph at the North ness  with DITT’s decapitated bonce in hand: We axe for what we want.

But that statement also alienated a lot of people disposed to support Mareel. Because what people in Shetland want from ShetArts at the moment is a bit of remorse, a bit of straightforward openness. Maybe thrashing and bashing about in the public arena is good legal posturing, but  ShetArts  is suppposed to serve the public, not threaten the livelihoods of building workers.

And there is a lack of openness. Rumours are flying about the real state of the ShetArts finances, and in relation to the council, what needs to be dealt with is how much ShetArts really owes, on top of the infamous groan. Alan Wishart is the only person so far to publicly refer to this, on BBC Radio Shetland’s Public Platform . In response to a question from Jane Moncrieff, Alan first of all confirmed that it was the council which has been paying Mareel and indeed Shetland Arts staff wages. Asked if  ShetArts was repaying this money, he replied “they are now.”

The council has traditionally handled the administration of  the trust payrolls. It would seem that Shetland Arts has been using this as an informal loan facility. I am relieved that it is now paying the money back, but it should have been open about what it was doing and we should be told, right now, how much money is involved. Openness, honesty, transparency: we should be able to trust a Trust to be all of those things, even when it’s fighting a battle in the courts. How could councillors, at that private meeting, be objective about the request for £600,000 when they knew - presumably -  how much in hock to the SIC ShetArts already was?

Because then we go back to my night out last weekend: the cinema seemed quite busy, but the gig lost money. It is utterly pointless for ShetArts to spin their cinema ticket sales  as financial salvation when - incredibly worthwhile- events such as the Moffat/Wells show are so financially unviable. And when between 30 and 70 per cent of cinema income goes to the film distributor.
The vultures are circling. Informal meetings about a private takeover of Mareel have been held, and if the council ends up owning the building, a lease to someone who will promote nothing but henny nights,  Jim Davidson comedy, live darts and tribute bands could end up being irresistible to those councillors in thrall to redneckdom.

The  solution may well be for the Shetland public to take action. Would you be prepared to spend £100 of your own money in, say, sponsoring a cinema or auditorium seat? More? I would, if I could be confident in the methodology and basic ideology of those running the place. Could a body of concerned folk be set up to monitor and advise on what happens at what is, what has to be an arts centre, not a dance hall, not a club, not a money-making repository for falling-over drunkenness and worse? Yes, surely. It could be a kind of…a kind of…arts trust…

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