Shock financial blows to Harrogate Theatre after one of its most successful ever years
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In my experience of the town’s historic venue over the past 35 years as a journalist and occasional arts organiser, writes Graham Chalmers, the town’s much-loved arts hub is not normally one to rush to complain.
But an official statement issued today by Harrogate Theatre on its immediate financial future, causes pause for thought.
The statement reads in full: “On 11th January 2024 North Yorkshire Council informed Harrogate (White Rose) Theatre Trust Ltd, the charity that is resident in Harrogate Theatre, that it is taking back programming responsibilities for Harrogate Convention Centre and The Royal Hall.
"Harrogate (White Rose) Theatre Trust Ltd has successfully programmed the Royal Hall and Harrogate Convention Centre on behalf of North Yorkshire Council and at the invitation of Harrogate Borough Council since 2011.
"We are proud of the range and quality of events we have delivered for the town and the positive economic and cultural impact this has had for Harrogate and its many visitors.
"Following this decision, The Trust are now working with its Board of Directors and other funding partners to explore alternative financial models.”
After bouncing back strongly from the seismic shocks of Covid and lockdown with an incredibly successful 2022-23, it would seem safe to assume that Harrogate Theatre could look ahead to 2024 with confidence.
But, following one of its most successful years in the last half century, the news that this this beautiful Victorian theatre, which has welcomed everyone from Sir Ben Kingsley to David Bowie to tread its boards, is now being forced to consider its situation is a surprise.
According to Harrogate Theatre’s recently published annual review for 2022-23 covering the shows it programmed in Harrogate Theatre, the Royal Hall and the Convention Centre, its total income was £3,534,481 compared to £2,843,381 in 2019-20.
In total, from 435 performances in 2022-23, it sold 134,784 tickets compared to 117,801 in 2019-20.
Taking control of the entertainment programme at the Royal Hall and Harrogate Convention Centre in 2011, when both these council run venues were struggling in that regard, the theatre spectacularly turned that programme around, which then provided an additional income that has contributed to the Trusts coffers ever since - to the tune of c£300,000 last year alone.
The prospect of losing that revenue stream it has created through its expertise in arts management was never going to be received with delight.
But this potential financial setback for Harrogate Theatre could be just one of a series of destabilising factors facing a civic institution which has enjoyed a roller coaster history since its doors first opened on January 13, 1900 during the Boer War.
It’s now 18 years since the chief executive David Bown, who writes the theatre’s popular pantomime, and his team pulled the venue out from a perilous financial position it found itself back in the mid-Noughties due to dwindling audiences.
Harrogate Theatre does benefit from public money, a relatively small amount, and the support of the local authority.
But its revival over the last 20 years has been achieved by a monumental stint of hard work by the entire team at Harrogate Theatre and their expertise and good judgement at programming shows that people from across Harrogate district flock to see.
Far harder to achieve than it looks, the figures for 2022-23 show a 70% capacity on all the events across the three venues, which is above the national average and not something to be taken for granted.
The arts may appear a fluffy part of the economy but consistent success in the sector for anyone not basking in huge subsidies or corporate sponsorship is deceptively hard and rarely achieved.
To most people who love Harrogate Theatre, from comedy fans who flock to see the likes of Michael McIntyre or Ross Noble, music fans looking forward to seeing Led Zeppelin legend Robert Plant at the Royal Hall this April to local am-dram groups, choirs, schools, emerging artists and its buoyant young people’s participation programme, it may almost feel that Harrogate’s much-loved arts hub run by the charitable Trust is being penalised for achieving excellence, stability and inclusivity, rather than rewarded.
More worrying is that the question of programming is only one of a range of problems, not of its own making now facing Harrogate Theatre.
The context for the current picture is linked partly to the deteriorating national picture for the arts in a time of high bills and low spending but partly to the unfolding impact of last year’s local government reorganisation in Harrogate, which has seen the creation of a bigger North Yorkshire Council currently tackling a £30 million budget shortfall.
All now seems in flux with many important question still to be answered over the future of Harrogate Theatre.
Could its lease for the historic building, which is now owned by North Yorkshire Council, be awarded elsewhere or contain unsustainable stipulations?
Harrogate Theatre has received an annual grant of £120,000 approximately to deliver a broad range of entertainment for the town from the now-abolished Harrogate Borough Council for over 30 years.
Will that continue once North Yorkshire Council has assessed applications for its new cultural grants from arts venues and organisations across the entire county in 2026?
Will healthy reserves built up by Harrogate (White Rose) Theatre Trust during Covid thanks to support from the Arts Council and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) disappear to pay for the new challenges it is now facing?
Harrogate Theatre is proud to have hosted everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Ken Dodd over the last 123 years and to have supported a vast array of community groups.
It has seen it all and done it all in more than a century of constant change.
Up to now this remarkable arts hub and its hard-working talented team has overcome every challenge that has come its way.
The question is, will it be different this time?