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St Mary in the Castle almost lost beyond repair in 1991: painting by Gus Cummings RA. “St Mary might be the ‘linchpin’ for raising the profile of Hastings – putting it on the international map as a centre for cultural, trade and events of all kinds – enriching the life of the whole town, and attracting an increasing number of visitors and participants from far and near,” the artist said in October 1991.

Hastings loves St Mary in the Castle

This is the title of a fundraiser on the Crowdfunder website. St Mary in the Castle closed its doors to the public in March this year and has lain dormant since then. HOT’s Chris Cormack asks: How deep is your love? How deep are your pockets?

The Cupola under repair – artist: Gus Cummins RA see: http://www.nickwates.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/St-Mary-Prospectus.pdf for prospectus

The first round of successful applicants to the Arts Council England (ACE) Culture Recovery Fund was announced earlier this month. Some people cared enough about the White Rock Theatre, the Hastings Contemporary  and the Stables Theatre to apply for and successfully receive £239,000, £230,000 and £70,000 respectively. But what of St Mary in the Castle?

An eminent stalwart of the Old Town voluntary sector has asked “if the Stables could open, then surely SMIC could. But perhaps they have lost all their volunteers! Who is in charge at St Mary in the Castle?”

Not Hastings Borough Council (HBC), it seems. Keith Leech, trustee on the SMIC board, was at pains to ‘put HOT right’:

“The council are not involved in the day to day running or finances of the building they lease to the trustees. It is for the trustees to run and programme what happens, including employing staff required. They are in control of the finances. They are also responsible for all fixtures, fittings, lighting, sound and routine maintenance. None of that has gone away; the building still needs maintenance and it is eating away at the reserves every day.”

St Mary in the Castle, a tangled mess painting: Gus Cummins RA

Bucket collections

So it would seem that HBC contributes nothing towards general maintenance and repair. This will be well known by patrons visiting SMIC before the Covid disaster, when they filled numerous buckets with money on many occasions to help finance a new £42,000 boiler. Meanwhile, audiences froze in their woolly underwear as a result of the broken-down boiler.

At the time of writing, HOT is not aware that a new boiler was purchased, so the ‘reserves’ mentioned by Keith Leech as ‘being eaten away’ could well be those raised for the boiler. Could they be looking for boiler money second time round? Full marks to Keith for seeking to address HOT’s concerns in a personal capacity. It seems that ‘the trustees’ were reluctant to offer responses at all, but eventually an anonymous press release was sent out stating:

The beautiful St Mary in the Castle – multi-adaptable

“The trustees inherited a functioning arts centre but one working from hand to mouth so that no extra expenditure could be spent on repairs such as badly needed new boilers. They looked carefully at the finances and set about establishing a full and exciting range of events with a view to beginning to turn in a profit so that essential works can be done and with a view to promoting events as a venue rather than just relying on hires. The plans for 2020 into 2021 was exciting, vibrant and should have started to show benefits by the turn of the year.”

Aerial view of St Mary in the Castle, courtesy SMIC-F

Notice what was missing? No suggestion that future development/maintenance could be financed from anything other than profits. They might have the odd bucket collection or Crowdfunder, I suppose.

“The trustees have not ceased to apply for grant funding looking to a day when the building can be properly reopened as a fully functioning arts centre and the planned events put into place. They have been using the time to go over the accounts from the past and do a lot of long-needed tidying up. The trustees were, of course, aware of the Arts Council Culture fund but were unable to apply for it because they were advised that they didn’t fit the very narrow criteria required. This has however forced the venue into an even greater financial difficulty than it was before, meaning the Arts in Hastings have been dealt a blow.”

St Mary in the Castle Illustration by Thom Kofoed

Meeting the criteria – or not

It would be interesting to know how come the White Rock Theatre “met the narrow criteria required” but St Mary in the Castle did not. Is St Mary in the Castle forever doomed to play Cinderella to the ugly sister up the road? –  to use the pantomime language used in the Crowdfunder. “For the time being then, the beauty sleeps, dreaming of the kiss that will wake her to live happily ever after, rescued by a Prince Charming with a remedy for the virus, or cash injection.”

So how do YOU like the role of ‘Prince Charming’?

It is good to know that SMIC is still applying for funds elsewhere, but is not the double negative here a little dodgy? : “This does not mean that discussions are not continuing with the Arts Council and other bodies to see what funding can be made available to keep the building open,” says the anonymous press release.

St Mary in the Castle, artist: Gus Cummins

“Please be our Prince Charming, because we know Hastings loves St Mary in the Castle!” says the Crowdfunder. “Fortunately, she can slumber comfortably for a while yet, but not too long, we hope,” it continues.

Is this not just a little complacent? “Plans for re-opening have had to be postponed several times, and it is now unrealistic to hope for performances and events to recommence until the Spring”.

Events still publicised

To look at the St Mary in the Castle website, one might think that all is well; at the time of writing there were still six interesting listed items on the events page, including two apparently due to take place this week, and I know this is far from being the total of events booked and subsequently to be cancelled before next Spring. Each event cancelled means a further dashing of hopes of more musicians and other performers wondering whether they can ever revive their creative careers.

What about the event organisers? How long can the SMIC management expect to retain the patience of these if the organisers find their events cancelled (and recancelled?) with limited prior notice, after incurring expense and bother? Some of the event organisers might be relieved to see their events cancelled; the latest press release implies that the Covid Police played a part in keeping SMIC closed, at last an example of  ‘support’ provided by HBC:

“Trustees were hoping to re-open before the end of 2020 but the new rule of six, and tier system together with rising virus numbers and government predictions that the virus could be with us well into 2021 and associated uncertainty mean that this simply isn’t possible. The ‘funds are available to keep things ticking over’ (the author’s italics), but there is no extra for things like deep cleaning between events without making hire fees or ticket prices too expensive. Half of the rows would need to be closed and then within those three seats in every four closed [with the result that] a 500 seater venue could only accommodate 70 making putting anything on financially unviable.”

I rather think that most event organisers would have felt comfortable booking SMIC with the thought there is plenty of room in the auditorium for ‘social distancing’, especially with all the boxes upstairs. I think they would be shocked to learn that distancing reduces its permissible capacity to 70. St Mary in the Castle’s greatest events had audiences of 1,500+ reduced to 70 maximum now? Who decided this? Is this Health and Safety gone mad? What hope now?

Shameful

Laetitia Yhap, a well-known Old Towner, commented on the Crowdfunder as follows: “28 years ago I was a member of FOSMIC (Friends of St Mary in the Castle), the original pressure group which saved the life of St Mary in the Castle. Over a period of seven years, with my partner, I voluntarily put on a wide-ranging programme of music events to show people that we had in our midst an incredible auditorium. It would be a shameful thing for the town, if, after the prodigious effort made by so many volunteers since that time, such a treasure went once more into decline.”

Back to the press release: “It has been frustrating to have to abandon an exciting programme of events especially as St Mary in the Castle was becoming established as a major centre for the arts, and host to events of national and even international significance, and despite the uncertainty, there are bookings for major events throughout 2021 into 2022. A building of such historical and cultural importance requires constant maintenance, which is often expensive.”

Yes, but how many of these event organisers will return after Covid (if they survive), if SMIC do not overcome their reopening dilemmas with a little more resolve than shown so far? The £25,000 requested is, as stated, just “to keep things ticking over,” so it will not solve anything but the shortest term of problems, especially when Hastings Borough Council do not even commit to cover basic repair and maintenance in support of their freehold ownership of this Grade II listed building.

Should you contribute to the fundraiser? Hastings does love St Mary in the Castle, but giving a short-term financial bridge is not an incentive for Hastings’ powers-that-be to wrestle with the real problems and decide on a proper strategy to preserve and develop the future of St Mary in the Castle. Shortly, HOT will be publishing details and recommending steps towards making the Hastings Arts budget work in a way that allows for a better strategic balance of expenditure.

“St Mary in the Castle is a wonderful building and extraordinary venue that must be saved and maintained,” says Ann Kramer.

She cares – do any Hastings Councillors care? Why don’t you ask them first?

Another atmospheric painting by Gus Cummins RA

 

Posted 10:23 Wednesday, Oct 28, 2020 In: Point of View

4 Comments

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  1. Chris Cormack

    I believe all the trustees, the councillors and council officers care, but such is the lack of transparency we can only judge them by their actions. We others who care have no reassurance that SMitC has a viable future. I researched the terms of the grant application and reports have emerged that none of the successful applicants were eligible to apply either but this story is still unravelling.
    It is more correct to say that the Trustees’ press release was not identified as coming from a person rather than anonymous. I apologise if readers did not understand this nuance. Only Keith Leech to his credit was willing to add his name to his statement. My theme was alarm about who is in charge, maybe nobody, so I considered it acceptable to refer to ‘trustees’.  
    I want to believe: ‘SMIC consistently seeks funding’. Please elucidate. ‘YOU’ is addressing anyone who has not expressly ruled themselves out from being ‘Prince Charming’.
    With regard to the 1500+ audience, this happened in January 1928 at a centenary Messiah concert and is documented in the Hastings Observer; the Friends say this is far from being an isolated example. You have increased the capacity to 700 from 500 reported by the Trust;  anyone who has been present at a 700 event will know that there are many seats still empty in particular upstairs. By planning social distancing carefully, eg with the bar and toilet policy, the capacity could be more than 1/20 of a full audience. 
    With regard to ”how many of the event organisers will return”, the existential crisis is not just that of SMitC but also of the performers’ careers; every time reopening is postponed is another nail in the coffin of the career hopes of creative people in Hastings. The Council’s two venues are closed; many private sector venues have already reopened and are working to reopen as soon as the present lockdown rules permit.

    Comment by Chris Cormack — Sunday, Nov 8, 2020 @ 08:35

  2. Ann Kramer

    I maintain this is a sloppy article, riddled with innuendo and selective use of facts:
    * First para: Clear implication that SMIC did not care enough to apply for Arts Council funding. Untrue. In preliminary conversations with the Arts Council, SMIC trustees were informed they were not eligible: see quote from press release in final para of sub-head Bucket Collections.
    * Bucket collections: Second para: The use of the word ‘reluctant’ is highly questionable, nor was the press release ‘anonymous’: it was a considered response from the trustees of SMIC. Also why put the word trustees in quotes? 4th para: reference to the odd bucket collection or Crowdfunder is ridiculous: SMIC consistently seeks funding.
    * Meeting the criteria – or not: second sentence: it would be interesting to know why White Rock meets criteria but not SMIC. I would suggest you do some research rather than drop in a question: the two venues are very different.
    * My query: to whom is the YOU addressed to?
    * Events still publicised: 2nd para: Given Covid and potential, now actual, lockdown, many event organisers pulled out and have rebooked for 2021. 4th para: Incorrect. SMIC has a maximum capacity of around 700, not 1,500+. Decisions to reduce numbers can hardly be described as ‘Health and Safety gone mad’ – a ridiculous phrase – but as a result of the trustees doing a full and through assessment in line with current government guidance on social distancing and so on. Eminently responsible in the current pandemic.
    * Shameful: 3rd para: how many of the event organisers will return etc? Many are already actively planning for a programme of events in 2021.
    In my opinion this whole article implies that neither HBC nor the trustees care about SMIC and has been written to that effect. It is wrong. I do also resent that you have used my name and quote as a means of highlighting your negative opinion of HBC, which in my opinion is bad journalistic practice.

    Comment by Ann Kramer — Thursday, Nov 5, 2020 @ 18:16

  3. Christopher Cormack

    I am sorry you did not like this article. If you can point out exactly where I have gone wrong factually, I shall be glad to amend it. It is an opinion article as stated.

    Comment by Christopher Cormack — Wednesday, Nov 4, 2020 @ 15:12

  4. Ann Kramer

    I think this is a particularly nasty article to say nothing about it being incorrect. Also I am extremely annoyed that a quote by me has been lifted from the Crowdfunding page and used as a weapon to enhance the writer’s view, which I do not support in any way whatsoever. I have no criticism of Hastings Borough Council or the trustees. I did not give permission for my quote to be used. As a professional writer and long-standing member of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), I consider this very sloppy, unprofessional and completely unacceptable. I would like my quote removed and a public apology.

    Comment by Ann Kramer — Monday, Nov 2, 2020 @ 00:44

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