Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

“The Shortest Artistic Director Job in History"

Yvonne Murphy on the Closure of Muni Arts Centre

In November the Minister, the Arts Council Chair and CEO came to Aberystwyth. Roger Tomlinson, its first Director, revisited. Pre-pack speeches were made that avoided reference to either Ceredigion or the Arts. The occasion was the completion, after many years in the thinking, of £700,000 worth of refurbishment. The technical facilities are superb and we, who are the beneficiaries, are grateful.

Geography is destiny. In December, three days before Christmas, the Muni Arts Centre closed its doors. Aberystwyth is a natural for good-scale capital investment. It is at the hub of three trunk roads, is the town that joins Wales' north and south. Its catchment area is substantial. When the product is right its audiences stretch to Pendine, Llanidloes, Dolgellau. It is the nature of the geography of Pontypridd not to have these advantages.

Arts spending is perpetual dilemma; different art forms, different localities, different languages vie for attention. Companies come, companies go. In 2018 Theatr Pena reached the peak of its powers. Had the Wales Theatre Awards endured it would have been a contender. In 2019 it is no more to be seen.

The closure of the Muni differed from other casualties. It had a witness in Yvonne Murphy who left a testimonial, titled “32 Days. Too Little Too Late.” It is a document of some length and substantial detail that asks for attention. It makes clear the challenges of keeping a public space, just that, public. It breaks with a tradition of public documents in not evading candour. How its description fits with, and within, cultural policy as a whole is for others to judge.

But it is a vivid document, born of private conviction, that deserves to be added to the record. The raw bones may be abridged as follows:

“It is closing its doors on a community who love it and need it. And above all use it. Every single day...This is a story of poor management and bad decisions.

...”The Muni Arts Centre was part of the RCT Council’s portfolio until 2015. They jointly funded three venues across the County with support from the Arts Council of Wales. In 2015 RCT took the decision to close the Muni against the advice of the Arts Council, the community and the Creative and Arts Industry.

“This was, in my opinion, and the opinion of others I trust and respect, not a decision based on a long-term strategic vision and plan for the town of Pontypridd. This was a politically motivated decision with a very negative impact on the town and its population. I write this as a Labour member and Labour Councillor and I write it conscious that I am going to upset people. However the truth is important .and this is more important that party politics.

“In 2016 a limited company and registered charity was then formed to reopen the Muni and the lease was transferred from the Council to the company. No core funding was given by RCT, although an SLA was agreed to provide a hot-meal service that replaced the closure of Pontypridd’s Day Centre. The company set about running the Muni as a venue for hire for the community with a café and bar which could support the financial running of the building with the aim of then securing future funding to develop and grow the venue. This worked for a time and the first year was moderately successful. Then the manager who had been appointed got a job elsewhere.

“I took the job knowing that the financial landscape at the Muni was not good. Knowing there was no core funding. I took the job knowing that it was a risk and that I did not have much time to turn things around. Neither I nor the board knew just how bad things were until I walked through the door on November 21st 2018

“I walked around the building and was shocked beyond belief. The whole place was absolutely filthy. Ingrained dirt. Not fit for the public. The theatre bar couldn’t be walked into without the soles of your shoes attaching to the sticky floor. Broken bottles and glass littered the floor. Alcohol stock was everywhere. Half opened bottles of Jack Daniels stood on the sticky counter. The kitchen was filthy. The store rooms were littered with debris. If a food standards officer had walked in with me the building would have been closed on the spot. Empty soft drinks cans were everywhere.

“Unwrapped food was on the floor and in fridges. Rubbish everywhere. Every room except the café had broken furniture stacked in it. The carpets were littered and the sinks in the toilets had ingrained dirt. This was not just dirt accumulated in the gap between the last manager leaving and me taking up post and I want to be clear that this was not the staff’s fault. A small number of hard-working and loyal staff, together with the trustees, had managed to keep the Muni open for business in this interim period. I put on some rubber gloves and picked up a mop and bucket and found a company to do a deep clean and met with every member of staff.

“...I utilised every single thing I had learnt during my Clore year. I was shouted at and sat with staff as they wept. I had the support of the board who rolled up their sleeves and members of the town council and the community....

“...And while I was dealing with all of this I was looking at the financial controls and assessing the financial viability of the business. There were no stock taking processes or controls whatsoever and financial controls and processes were not to be found. Those put in place by the board had been dismantled. Staff had been told not to use the existing reconciliation sheets when cashing up the till but simply to put the cash in a bag with the till receipt and give it to the manager. Except there was no till receipt in the theatre bar where all the business happened on gig nights. There was no till used at all. All cash. And everyone was paid cash.”

“...The reality was simple. The Muni could not be a going concern without immediate investment. We did not have time to wait for funding applications...The Muni has a severely increased deficit and has a serious number of outstanding debts including with HMRC. No VAT has been paid for months and this was being called in along with creditors such as the security firm.

“...The reasons for RCT Council to invest in the Muni were manifold and made good business sense. Muni has the only flexible multi use space of that scale in Pontypridd, It houses everything from conferences to plays, dance, live music, circus, weddings and aerobics for the elderly. It is next to the bus stop so is accessible to all socio-economic parts of the wider community. It has disabled access and is loved and used every week from tiny tots to people in their nineties and everything in between.

“This past week alone it has hosted the local amateur theatre companies annual panto which has been running for over forty years, a Welsh Panto, a rock gig, a youth performing arts group, yoga, aerobics, tai chi, a drivers rehabilitation course and has seen over 1200 audience members through the door (many of them school children and families). All while also offering a café and bar with reduced hot meals for the over fifties.

“Never have I witnessed a cultural venue so used and so occupied on a daily basis that receives no state funding whatsoever. My proposal was to take all this and gather it together strategically. To create an artistic and participation programme which served everyone and could work financially. I outlined a business plan and how I would develop it in the next five years including fundraising, business development, marketing and PR.

“I was prepared to give my all to this building because I strongly believe it is in a place where my skills, experience, knowledge and passion could truly make a difference. In one of the most economically challenged areas in the whole of the UK Pontypridd needs a cultural beacon at its heart to enable and support its regeneration.

“...The decision regarding the future of the Muni was then one for the board. Having taken legal advice is was decided that they could not continue and the company has now gone into liquidation.”

This is a severely truncated version of a powerful, articulate and emotional account. The sum requested was £30,000. The full account, which runs to 3190 words, can be read at:

https://yvonnemurphyblog.wordpress.com/2018/12/22/32-days-too-little-too-late-my-time-at-the-muni-arts-centre-the-shortest-artistic-director-job-in-history/?fbclid=IwAR3jQMs2UUljHboakKY9SYA7aI4wLKjfS_bPdMoOm2YOE11pQ9V-MxT2p0Q

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
05 January 2019

 

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