A price worth paying for culture

The queue of contestants for the first year of the Stoke's Top Talent variety contest outside the Victoria Hall in Hanley.

The queue of contestants for the first year of the Stoke’s Top Talent variety contest outside the Victoria Hall in Hanley.

Against a backdrop of cutbacks, closures and austerity measures, the future of The Regent Theatre and Victoria Hall will come under scrutiny like never before in the coming months.

Councillors have to decide whether or not to renew Stoke-on-Trent Theatres’ lease – which runs out next March – or find someone else to run the Hanley venues.

The report to elected members states: “Discussions will also include how to manage the theatres in the most cost-effective way and how they can attract a greater number of West End productions to boost visitors and income.”

At the centre of the debate is an annual subsidy of around £500,000 of taxpayers’ money.

It’s not a sum to be sniffed at in the current climate but, at the risk of annoying campaigners battling to save closure-threatened swimming pools and various other council-run services, I’m convinced this is money well spent.

Of course, councillors have every right to query the validity of this public propping-up of a private business.

However, the question that needs to be asked is: what would happen to The Regent and Vicki Hall if we didn’t offer such an incentive?

After all, the venues are still operating at a loss – albeit a small one – in spite of the subsidy.

In all probability the simple answer is that the city council would be unable to find a theatre company to take on the lease.

Thus the local authority would be forced to either enter the cut-throat world of entertainment – i.e. attempt to operate the venues itself – or to mothball them.

At this point it is worth saying that in other towns and cities across the UK similar subsidy arrangements exist between councils and theatre companies.

The fact is that if we want to see top-rate touring shows such as Calendar Girls and The Sound of Music and we want musicians of the calibre of Slash and Morrisey to stop by then we are going to have to make a contribution from the public purse.

We can gnash our teeth all we want over the original Cultural Quarter overspend but the legacy of a badly-executed vision is two top class entertainment venues.

To bring the curtain down on them now would be a crime – and one which would undermine all the good work which is taking place to improve the city centre.

The £4 million refurbishment of the Mitchell Memorial Youth Arts Centre is now complete and work to breathe new life into Bethesda Chapel is well underway.

In addition, we are still grappling with the potential of the acquisition of the Staffordshire Hoard and what this will mean for the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery (PMAG).

If we play our cards right, what it should ultimately equate to is the complete re-interpretation of the museum’s galleries which will drag them into the 21st Century.

Rather than simply boasting one of the finest ceramics collections in the world (and a hidden shrine to the creator of the Spitfire), the PMAG would also become renowned as the home of this priceless Anglo-Saxon treasure hoard.

The icing on the cake is that I am starting to believe we may actually see a new bus station in my lifetime. Pinch me.

When you add all this together you start to realise that rather than being a rather grand label for a few streets with al fresco bars, our Cultural Quarter could soon become a genuine source of pride.

More to the point, it would be a dedicated area of the city centre where visitors could genuinely spend a whole day.

There will always be a debate over the range and calibre of shows and artists attracted to The Regent and Victoria Hall, as well as box office prices in an area where families are not blessed with heaps of disposable income.

However, what is surely beyond question is that they are the original jewels in Stoke-on-Trent’s Cultural Quarter and I believe £500,000 a year is a small price to pay for polishing them.


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