Trusts and companies operating council venues are folding under financial pressure. Can cash-strapped local authorities retain - even improve - provision under the circumstances?
Local authority arts venues face an uncertain yet hopeful future as trusts and companies operating them fold under the financial pressure of Covid-19.
Well-resourced multi-venue operators say they are doing better than expected, thanks in part to being able to apply to the Cultural Recovery Fund for each of their sites.
They are positive about rebuilding post-Covid, and are even discussing new projects with their clients: "Many local authorities have realised that they had taken their venues for granted," HQ Theatres Chief Executive Julian Russell said.
- Regional venues rail against 'illogical' restrictions
- Artless planning reform could put venues at risk
But smaller or less experienced lone operators lacking financial insulation will find it harder to weather the storm, experts warn.
Some, such as Southport Theatre operator Bliss Space, Vivacity in Peterborough, and Falkirk Community Trust, which operates a gallery, a museum and two theatres among other services, have already handed back the keys, leaving councils to mull the future of their mothballed venues.
The question then becomes whether local authorities, themselves battling the cost of Covid-19, can retain local provision.
"We just return to the same systems with less money and it's not really sustainable," says Val Birchall, Chair of the Chief Cultural and Leisure Officers Association (CLOA).
"What I worry about now is when we come out of the pandemic. What's the cultural provision for the country going to look like?"
Councils under financial pressure may be forced to reconsider their culture offer. Maidstone Borough Council, for example, recently cancelled its contract with Parkwood Theatres to operate Hazlitt Theatre, citing a need to cut costs.
Birchall said a lot of trusts and small operators have been "marginally viable" in recent years.
"They have been optimistically thinking that they've been doing all the right things to increase their income... they have kept going, being driven by their mission."
But as the pandemic pummels everyone's pocketbooks, there are lots of situations where operators will have no choice but to hand back their venues - and councils may have little option but to accept to keep local services alive.
"I wouldn't be completely despairing but in some places authorities have few choices," Birchall said.
While outsourcing to private operators enables more financial flexibility - the ability to fundraise, for example - it means operators are not necessarily supported or underpinned by a broader "family" of council services, she added.
"When things become really difficult and you couldn't forsee it, you're left on your own."
The bigger operators believe councils will redouble their interest in commercial partners that have the experience, energy and resources required to run local venues.
David Clarke, Managing Director of Clarke Associates, thinks fewer councils will run their own venues or seek local partnership models in a bid to reduce liabilities as they recover.
Russell at HQ Theatres agreed: "There has been zero suggestion of less revenue funding from local authorities," he said, suggesting the opposite may be true.
Describing the pandemic as "an extraordinary time" and "a tough moment", commercial operators told ArtsProfessional they will emerge stronger and more connected to their council clients, ideally with investment in "virus resistant venues".
Russell said the Cultural Recovery Fund had been a "lifesaver". Unlike councils, operators were able to apply via each of their venues and "benefitted hugely".
Birchall said Cultural Recovery Fund allocations had considered the geographic spread of services, but perhaps not their place in the wider cultural ecology of that area.
"One of the challenges of the cultural sector is that often the interventions are a bit one-size-fits-all.
"What I would like to see is a situation where places can bring forward appropriate solutions and have a mature conversation with partners at a national level about that."
While councils are considering how to make the argument externally that culture requires investment, Birchall said, operators are encountering a new appreciation for local venues.
They say key council people now better understand the business end and see venues' value to education, outreach and the economic development of town centres.
"The majority of local authorities have been fantastically supportive," Julia Potts, Business Director of Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), said.
Potts said the pandemic meant ATG had to work more closely - and frankly - with its local authority partners. There has been real teamwork, often for the first time, she said.
Russell felt the same, saying local authorities had collaborated with HQ on financial matters as well as maintenance and protection.
HQ will emerge from the experience as a different company, he said.
"What has become essential throughout the company is honesty, transparency, realism and not over-promising."
Birchall said there is an opportunity now to seize on this enthusiasm and reverence for local venues.
"But we have to position ourselves to do that, and even if we can, there will be less money."
Birchall boils her approach to the challenges ahead down to a pithy motto: "Travel hopefully."
"I think we will see a lot of different models tested," she said.
"We might see more services coming back under the council but that could be a temporary refuge. You could come back while things are unmanageable - and for some places that might be appropriate."
Operators say they are working with local authorities and organisations to plan reopening alongside other night time economy businesses.
ATG are optimistically planning to open Stockton Globe later this year and Swansea Arena in 2022.
He is currently involved in more than a dozen projects to support venues in towns across the UK. Half of these involve major investments by local authorities to increase their venues' capacity by between 600 and 1000 people.
"They are positive - and ambitious," he said.