THE company behind Visual and the George Bernard Shaw Theatre has been forced to seek a subvention of €86,867 from Carlow Co Council this year.
The subvention request was approved by county councillors last week, but there was deep unease at the direction of the centre, with it being described as a ‘millstone’ for the council.
In a written request, Carlow Arts Centre Ltd, VISUAL and the George Bernard Shaw Theatre, requested €86,867 from the council in order to make up a shortfall in funding and to meet operational costs this year.
Carlow Arts Centre, which is owned by Carlow Co Council, cited three factors for the shortfall. There had been ‘significant increase’ in the energy and utility costs of around €40,000 for the centre.
Audiences had not returned to pre-pandemic show levels, which had a ‘significant impact on income generated’ by the theatre.
There was also a VAT reporting requirement, which resulted in ongoing reductions in the amount of VAT that could be recouped, resulting in a loss of €34,000 this year.
Introducing the subvention to members, cathaoirleach Brian O’Donoghue described it as a “fairly stark situation.” The vast majority of councillors supported the subvention but spoke of their concerns at the centre’s viability.
Cllr John Cassin said he would have preferred a discussion in private about the subvention, although he supported it.
“It’s not the first time Visual have come looking for extra money,” said the independent councillor from Carlow town. “Now it’s being thrust upon you to publicly back it.”
Cllr Cassin queried the funding of the centre and suggested there was little coming from the Arts Council.
Labour’s William Paton was scathing about the centre. He said he had “major concerns” about the future of Visual and believed it needed a root and branch review of how it was run.
“From day one, it’s been a millstone around your neck,” he said. Cllr Paton said “promises” around the centre had not materialised. “It’s going to continue to be a millstone around the neck.”
Cllr Paton said most people had no idea of the “art” that is presented at Visual.
“If it’s not aimed at locals, why do we have it? I can’t support it today, I won’t support it today,” he said. “I am not in the slightest bit interested in the art luvvies from Dublin coming down to see a spare room with one thing in it and they are slapping each other on the back.”
Cllr Paton said he could not tolerate cutting money from the community sector in order to give money to Visual.
People Before Profit’s Adrienne Wallace praised Visual but also queried its model of being a private company that received public money. Cllr Wallace also requested to know how much the art centre’s boss was earning.
“It’s in the public interest that the information is out there,” she said.
This information was not disclosed, with the cathaoirleach saying the information would be contained in the centre’s statement of accounts and it was “not fair” to talk about an individual’s wages.
Cllr Michael Doran said it was critical the centre was funded up until Christmas but believed a meeting should be held between councillors and the board.
Referring to cllr Paton’s ‘luvvies,’ the Leighlinbridge councillor said they were welcome in the county. They spent money in Carlow and “any draw to Carlow” was welcome.
Labour’s Willie Quinn said Visual had not supplied a report to councillors for the last two years about costs and funding and one was required.
Cllr Fergal Browne of Fine Gael said: “We cannot keep going the way we are going.”
In response, chief executive Kathleen Holohan highlighted that all funding from the Arts Council goes to the gallery at the centre.
The issue was the theatre, which received no government funding.
“You can appreciate that following covid, audiences have not returned to the theatre in the numbers prior to covid. That is not a unique situation in Carlow, it’s a problem for venues across the country. That has presented problems in generating sufficient income to meet the costs.”
Ms Holohan said there was no issue in arranging a meeting between councillors and the board.
Speaking of Carlow Arts Centre Ltd, Ms Holohan said it was set up as a limited company because it would avail of capital goods scheme and VAT recoupment in the construction of the facility.
“If that would not have been available at the time, it would have jeopardised the future of the project.”
The subvention was passed, with cllr Paton insisting his opposition be noted.