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St Mary in the Castle.

What future for our performance venues?

As Hastings enters a second period of lockdown, and the few performance venues which had reopened must close their doors once more, the question of how they can survive and eventually return to activity is a crucial one. Bea Rogers, who has a close associatiom with several of the town’s leading venues, offers her view on the way forward. Photos by Russell Jacobs.

Let me say a few words first on St Mary in the Castle – Chris Cormack has given us some of the background in his recent article. The trustees are crowdfunding, hoping for £25,000 to tide them over. Meanwhile they should have sent in an Annual Return and Accounts for the year to 31 May 2019 but are in default with both, 216 days late (as of 2 November) according to the Charity Commission.

There are six trustees listed: Laurence Walker, Jo Mayne, Thomas Gardiner, Keith Leech, Marcus Weeks and Juliet Harris. With a couple of exceptions it is not clear what experience they have of managing a building and events programme. Judy Rogers, who used to manage much of the trustees’ business, has now stood down and the managers have left.

So St Mary’s is in difficulties, in addition to the enforced closures because of the Covid lockdown. They may be able to renegotiate their lease with HBC if they can get their act together, on the costs of buildings insurance and maintenance, and they may eventually be able to trade their way out of their financial difficulties.

It would help if they were more open in their operations and less suspicious of outsiders – the SMIC Friends, who had existed for many years, finally gave up last year because their nominee for trustee, Ron Sollars, was dumped without consultation, and attempts to support and communicate were met with few or no responses from management or trustees.

Council policy

I suggest that the best way of approaching this matter is to look at all the performance venues in town, starting with the role of Hastings Borough Council in offering financial support exclusively towards a private operator, HQ Theatres. They run White Rock Theatre on a lease from the owners, HBC, with a very generous subsidy thrown in. The Council reported in 2018 that Kim Forward, then the lead councillor for regeneration and culture, had signed a second subsidy agreement which would replace the diminishing payments under the existing contract and take them up to 2023. Kim is now the Leader of HBC.

The current subsidy being paid to HQ Theatres, according to the Council’s reply to my Freedom of Information request, is £45,000 per month, which would be £540,000 a year. It seems this was being paid during the first lockdown closure, which would be money paid for an empty theatre, although I understand payments have been suspended since last month and the theatre may remain closed until June or July. There are “ongoing discussions” about these, I understand. The contract is not due to end until the end of January 2024 – over three years from now.

There is a big question as to whether the Council can maintain a contract for subsidy when it cannot guarantee that the payments will be in its annual Budget. Questions are likely to be asked at the Audit committee about what HBC call a “subsidy” and HQ a “management fee”.

Hastings Council clearly cannot afford these payments, which now run into millions of pounds – they are having severe difficulties funding the most basic services in the town. It would be interesting to see whether HQ might threaten to sue over this, although it would hesitate to lose its privileged status in planning for a future building.

White Rock Theatre, the only performance venue in Hastings to receive financial support from the council.

Councillors ill-informed

Councillors are often surprisingly ill-informed about what exactly we have in our town. That is partly because some are partially hidden from street view, but it is mainly because they are poorly advised. While I was managing St Mary’s, I invited one of the councillors to visit. His first words when he entered were, “I came on my own, the officers tried to stop me and you know what they are like, they want to get rid of this place.” His second was: “But there’s no lift here, is there? No disabled access?” I showed him the lift and ramps and it was all news to him.

The Council’s “development” officers never set foot in the building and have no interest apart from seeing it as something to get rid of. They also favour new projects over preserving historic buildings – it looks good for their CV when they quickly move on. This is important because HBC is often described as a council where the officers make the real decisions, and just tell the councillors what they want to hear.

So the first task is for the councillors to take charge and not leave it to the officers, and to use this lockdown period to inform themselves and formulate a stronger policy. At one time I worked for a member of the US Congress and I would propose their system where the decision-making committee holds hearings on proposed legislation where the facts can be reviewed, different views can be represented and questions asked.

In Hastings a small group of interested councillors could hold hearings on the venues and events, and how they can best be matched up. That would also have to include visits and in-depth guided briefings. Only if the councillors understand the buildings we actually own, or which already contribute to our vibrant performance scene, can they make a sensible decision.

Elements for review

The elements needing review are:

1) The requirements of major events and festivals for a local venue, and how these can be met. This particularly applies to Hastings Music Festival and International Piano Competition, both of which currently use White Rock Theatre. Then there is the May Day and other big festival events, the Hastings Sinfonia and Hastings Philharmonic, the Composers’ Festival, South East Opera, the Hastleons, Beatles Day, Fat Tuesday, and so on. It is a very impressive list.

2) The needs and opportunities of the present community-based venues. The biggest of these are obviously St Mary’s and also Opus Theatre, which shares premises with His Place Church but operates an independent programme focusing especially on classical music. Then there is St Clement’s Church, refurbished at considerable cost to provide a performance venue; Stables Theatre; Kino; Stade Hall; Electric Palace; and large numbers of churches, especially Christ Church and St John’s, the Azur, Angling Club and church halls, community centres and so on, not to mention the many pubs putting on live music. (My apologies to all those I have left out.) All of these are surviving through the dedication of volunteers, and many could do wonders with a tiny fraction of the subsidies paid to HQ Theatres.

3) The heritage value of some of the buildings, which should also be considered. St Mary’s is listed Grade 2*. His Place is Grade 2 and also on the At Risk register. Neither can be simply knocked down; if they fall out of use they would become derelict and a blight on the town. The best guarantee for the future of these beautiful buildings is an appropriate long-term use, which also guarantees that people can see their wonderful interiors. When the Mayor of Eastbourne visited a jazz event at St Mary’s he was deeply envious – if they had such a building, he said, they would protect and promote it.

A little money goes a long way in supporting our amazing venues. We need consultation with organisers and venues to discuss how the community events can best be accommodated. HBC can help with pump-priming and helping to secure external grant funding as well. With the demise of the HQ subsidy, a small proportion could be set aside for this. Call it a management fee, if that helps. Or subsidise the events rather than the venues, which would benefit from the extra bookings. But let us all inform ourselves about the wonderful performance facilities we have, and how to secure their future.

 

Bea Rogers is currently managing front of house at Opus Theatre. She previously managed St Mary in the Castle and its café as a sole trader until 2012 and was later chair of the St Mary in the Castle Friends until they disbanded last year.

This article was amended at the writer’s request on 21 November 2020 to reflect new information on HBC’s  payments to HQ.

Posted 19:44 Sunday, Nov 8, 2020 In: Point of View

8 Comments

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  1. Nick Clark

    If HBC was an employee they would have been sacked by now. Disowning SMITC much like The Pier before is disgraceful.

    Comment by Nick Clark — Wednesday, Nov 11, 2020 @ 13:17

  2. Melody Brown

    I worked as a casual bar person at St Mary’s for a couple of years. The managers were the best bosses I ever had and it was a privilege to work with them in such a beautiful building. Sadly, they were let go when Covid struck and the building has been left empty since.

    I’m amazed they didn’t apply for the Arts Recovery Fund. One of their trustees had been informed they were ineligible but I find this hard to believe. If they’d received even half of The Piper’s bail out, they could’ve fixed the boilers and got some more sound proofing and even opened for socially distanced events. As far as I can tell, the only reason the building hadn’t become derelict before 2020 was due to the hard work and ingenuity of its management. If they’d still been in place now, St Mary’s would have weathered the pandemic and come back stronger. As it is, I can’t imagine the building will survive under the current trustee board.

    Comment by Melody Brown — Tuesday, Nov 10, 2020 @ 20:05

  3. John

    Just to be clear. The management didn’t just leave, the trustees booted them out so they didn’t have to contribute to NI during the second furlough phase. The previous management would never have let the venue go without at least trying to secure funding. The trustees need to be healed accountable to their public for their careless actions.

    Comment by John — Tuesday, Nov 10, 2020 @ 18:03

  4. philip oakley

    A nice article.

    St Mary’s is a fantastic piece of architecture and potentially a great venue for classically orientated performances. It’s bizarre that people are planning building more creative spaces as part of the White Rock masterplan than simply focusing on maintaining a building that financially couldn’t be built in this day and age. It’s rather like having a priceless old Ferrari in your garage but rather than maintain it, leave it to rot and then take out a 95% loan to buy a cheap new sports car.

    The Council should really have helped and encouraged venues like St Mary’s get it’s fair share of the funding Barbara mentions. As usual funding goes to those who are best at filling the forms in.

    Comment by philip oakley — Monday, Nov 9, 2020 @ 18:15

  5. Bernard McGinley

    There’s an article on the Friends of SMIC (from a year ago) here:
    https://www.hastingsindependentpress.co.uk/news/st-mary-loses-its-friends/

    Essentially the Trustees treated them badly so they decided to disband.

    Comment by Bernard McGinley — Monday, Nov 9, 2020 @ 16:15

  6. Sally Gardner

    I have staged 2 very successful events at SMITC over the years, Hiss the Villain to raise funds, and Hastings Hullabaloo to raise the profile of this wonderful building. As Ms Rogers says in her article, Fosmic (of which I wa made a lifetime member) was wound up last year and existing funds donated to various local charities. At that time, I was assured that the building was now self-supporting and so no longer in need of any volunteer help. I was delighted to hear this, and so am horrified that we seem to be once more back at square one and this glorious venue is in danger of once more falling into decay. On the opening night of HTV I received a letter from the Prince of Wales saying how much his grandmother, the Queen Mother, had loved the building, which is surely something of an honour not only for the building but for the whole, incredibly active, artistic community that is Hastings. SMITC is the jewel in the crown of this town and should be cherished and defended by the entire population.

    Comment by Sally Gardner — Monday, Nov 9, 2020 @ 10:35

  7. Nick

    Well said. And why didn’t St Mary’s apply for Gov funds like The Piper did (and got)? Their problem would have been solved and no crowdfunding required.

    Comment by Nick — Monday, Nov 9, 2020 @ 09:27

  8. Marion Lovell

    It would be an outrage if SMIC were to be allowed to become derelict. It is a wonderful performance venue, and Hastings Philharmonic have used it frequently for choral and orchestral events.
    Can someone explain why the friends of SMIC was wound up? IF HBC own the building, why would they not promote such a historic venue?
    It seems to me that the council is failing in its duty to provide suitable venues for performances of every kind.
    Come on, HBC. Do something positive for a change and regenerate this amazing, wonderful building. Start by have a full council taking a tour of the premises. Then help with the installation of a new heating boiler. then enjoy what you have.

    Comment by Marion Lovell — Monday, Nov 9, 2020 @ 01:12

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