It may have received 650,000 visitors in 2019 and also be home to 23 category-one 19th century historical Gothic Revival buildings but The Arts Centre Te Matatiki Toi Ora in Christchurch is financial challenged to remain open.
Its executive director Philip Aldridge estimates that unless it can secure public funding for the delivery of its services as an arts, events, education and community hub for visitor engagement, the essential attraction and focal point that it represents in the central city will see it close within the next 18 months.
The announcement is a complete surprise in view of the scale of its restoration to date and its relatively rapid reopening in comparison to much of the inner city with two-thirds of its premises reinstated by 2016 and that portion now almost fully leased. Its attractions in 2020 are a mix of restaurants, galleries, workshop spaces for the arts, a weekend market, specialist retail spaces, a cinema and site for cultural activities.
Opened in 1873 as Canterbury University and re-defined and demarcated a centre for artistic activity in the early 1970s, its historical and contemporary uses single it out as essential on many levels to the identity and cultural of Ōtautahi Christchurch.
So how did the Arts Centre find itself in such tenuous circumstances? Aldridge notes that as a centre for the arts located in a cluster of heritage buildings its circumstances are not new. It has always been a huge challenge to actually make the arts centre work. ‘The business model is so precarious. If you want to set up studios for artists you do it in the poorest area of the city. You’d do it in a grungy shed wherever you can get the cheapest accommodation. You would not choose to do it in 23 category-one listed buildings which are much more expensive real estate. It has always been a flawed model and it has always required funding.’
He comments that the Arts Centre’s access to funding is predominantly through one-off capital grants that are for the restoration of its buildings the problem being that for the annual operation of its services and activities there is a $1.5 million hole every year. ‘So far that has been funded by the interest off capital invested from our insurance payouts. As we reach the end of the project that money is gone.’
‘There are two big costs. One is the buildings themselves. The costs associated with them have risen exponentially. Insurance has gone up and the value of the buildings has gone up. That has made our insurance bill 400% more that what it was. With half the floor space on the site open it is half a million dollars a year in insurance alone. Then you have got the compliance of the building, warrants of fitness and of course building maintenance. The buildings are contemporary and useable but expensive.’
Occupying its expensive category-one buildings, rents for the Arts Centre’s tenants means that they cover only a portion of the value of the lease of the premises. ‘We have trimmed costs as much as we can and we can’t ring any more money out of the site. We are 85% tenanted and nearly all of those are at market rates but the recovery of operational costs we can never pass on to the tenants otherwise they would leave. So there is always a financial gap at the end of each year and it is now too big a gap. We are not on charging all the expenses of the building so that is always going to be there.’
‘It is delightful that we are fulfilling the act for the Trust, to be a centre for the arts but it still doesn’t pay the bills. Even if you commercially tenanted the whole site it still wouldn’t work.’
‘The Arts Centre is a great success story in terms of the number of artistic tenants that we have got. The problems have now multiplied but it is exactly the same underlying problem. I have been trotting down Lampton Quay in Wellington for the last two years and central government had shut the door in our face, stating that this is a local issue. That is a justifiable position because there is no established funding stream for the Arts Centre to apply to. Predominantly we are viewed as a venue or series of venues and the responsibilities for venues fall on local councils.’
‘If the Arts Centre Trust fails the assets or buildings will be assigned by the High Court to a new owner. That new owner, under the act of parliament, can only continue to serve the objectives of the current Trust. It must continue to be a centre for the arts. The most likely recipient would be the Christchurch City Council and if that happened, at that point there are a lot of legal bills and re-establishment costs. So they might as well just fund it now.’
‘Council use to fund us. It was $800,000 a year. That combined with cuts we make would probably get us over the line.’
Aldridge is looking forward, not only to the resolution of the conundrum that the annual financial management of the Arts Centre represents, but also its complete restoration and further occupation by artists and arts organisations. The final restoration stage is of the four engineering buildings with ambitions for a conference centre, galleries, a performance centre and studios. ‘We are missing dance studios and the presence of the Court Theatre. They were bringing huge numbers into the place which is great for everyone else’s activities. We have other venues for performance but not a designated space. The main building in the engineering block is actually bigger than the Great Hall and that would really anchor performance in the middle of the site.’
‘The Arts Centre is basically a village hall at the heart of the city and it should be used as such and the more diverse the communities that use it the better and more reflective of our society it is.’
‘But what we need now is stabilisation. We need to have a discussion about it as soon as possible. We need an indication to either plan or to close.’
The Arts Centre Te Matatiki Toi Ora
2 Worcester Boulevard
- Amy Couling, Skiki, 20230 gouache on paper. Exhibiting at Pūmanawa Community Exhibition Space (available for hire to art groups and artists throughout the year), her solo exhibition, Musubi is open from 17 to 23 August.
- Winter Night Market at The Arts Centre Te Matatiki Toi Ora 24 August 2017