Arts centre development ‘would need to pay for itself’

One site identified in the report as a potential location for the new building is the leisure centre in Newmarket if a new leisure centre is built elsewhere.
One site identified in the report as a potential location for the new building is the leisure centre in Newmarket if a new leisure centre is built elsewhere.

A new arts, culture and heritage centre in Morpeth would be a ‘vibrant and stimulating attraction’ for residents and visitors, according to an expert.

But Karen Taws, who has nearly 20 years of experience working in the creative and cultural sectors and provides detailed analysis for various arts organisations in the UK, stressed that such a facility must be run on a commercial basis.

She recently did a presentation to invited residents and councillors at County Hall in relation to the feasibility study she carried out last year for the HeArt of Morpeth project.

It involved extensive desk research, a review of potential audience demand including an online survey, detailed discussions with a range of people with an interest in and experience of arts and culture and development issues and a review of 15 similar arts centres in market towns across the country. Funding for it came from Morpeth Town Council, the Friends of Morpeth Museum and Queen’s Hall Arts in Hexham.

Renewed efforts to have an arts and culture facility built in Morpeth have come as a result of Northumberland County Council reviewing its town centre buildings and assets and leader Grant Davey saying that ‘radical and exciting proposals relating to education, leisure and the arts can be put on the table for discussion’.

Mrs Taws said: “It’s unusual for a town of Morpeth’s size not to have an arts and culture centre.

“Although the site is unlikely to be available until 2021/22, the process should begin this year if there is agreement on taking the project forward.

“Such a venue would be a vibrant and stimulating attraction that benefits residents and attracts more visitors to Morpeth.

“High-quality professional companies would perform in the main theatre and the building would also showcase the work of amateur arts and culture groups.

“I must say though that it’s not about having all the community arts groups using the centre for all of their performances and rehearsals, which would not be possible anyway. It’s about giving them another option to help their development.

“The heritage and folk music elements should play an important part, particularly given how strong these areas are in Morpeth.

“But it’s vital to stress that the world of subsidised venues is very much a thing of the past, so the building would need to be run 100 per cent on a commercial basis.

“For example, the cafe/bar should be the sort of place people want to go to in its own right.”

In the discussion that followed, one of the residents present said an essential factor for the centre to succeed is the provision of sufficient car parking spaces for users and people going to watch the performances.

A total of 291 people responded to the online survey, with a further eight giving their views in hard-copy format, and 95.3 per cent of these people said they and/or their family would either definitely or probably use a cultural centre in Morpeth.

Mrs Taws said potential sources of funding include the National Lottery, European organisations, trusts and foundations and the private sector.

The project is being facilitated by the Greater Morpeth Development Trust (GMDT) and a steering group was formed in February 2015.

GMDT chief executive David Lodge said: “It’s about going on a journey and we will work with our partner organisations as we aim to make progress step by step.

“But we will also need to manage expectations as the project will take a long time to reach its conclusion.”

Coun Andrew Tebbutt said afterwards that it is 20 years since the Morpeth District Arts Trust was formed. Its primary goal was to try to get a new arts and culture centre built in the town.

He added: “I would be delighted if the project succeeds, but we have been trying for many years and we will need support from the county council to find a suitable site.”

“I agree with the consultant that it must be financially viable and so the business case needs to be robust.”