Tuesday, May 23, 2023

By Suzanne Pender

AUDIENCE numbers at Visual have increased by 87% in 2023 yet the financial support of Carlow County Council remains necessary for the arts centre’s continued viability.

That was the message from representatives of Visual, who addressed the May meeting of Carlow County Council to outline the centre’s extensive programme and financials for the first quarter of 2023. Emma Lucy O’Brien, CEO and artistic director of Visual, and Niall Scully, the arts centre’s finance and operations manager, addressed members.

Ms O’Brien stated that, like all sectors, Visual was facing issues in terms of the cost of inflation and high energy costs; however, for the first quarter from January to April 2023, performances, events and activities at Visual had been well attended.

Audience and participant numbers had increased from 4,653 in 2022 to 8,703 in 2023, an increase of 87%. Revenue had also increased across the programme with more paid opportunities, while overall funding for the centre’s artistic programme had increased to €330,000 for 2023.

“Audiences have returned to the theatre, and 50% of the events are local events,” said Ms O’Brien.

Mr Scully outlined the centre’s finances for 2022, concluding with the centre’s finances “just above break-even”. This included an increased subvention from Carlow County Council of €87,000 in November 2022, bringing the council’s total contribution in 2022 to €585,000.

Mr Scully indicated a strong first quarter in 2023, with theatre numbers and revenue from the bar both up on last year.

Of the 112 shows projected for this year, 56 are local.

Ms O’Brien thanked the council for its support and contribution which, she said, was “very much appreciated”.

Cllr Fergal Browne asked about securing a sponsor for the building, much like the Bord Gais Theatre in Dublin. He acknowledged there was “a huge amount of work done” but asked about groups holding events in other venues such as Rathwood.

“Do you ask groups for feedback? And how do you compare to these other venues?” he asked.

Cllr John Cassin asked about the pricing structure and the costs involved for local groups putting on a show. He also criticising the level of funding provided by the Arts Council. “It’s haemorrhaging money annually yet the Arts Council don’t give any money to staffing costs … it’s just mindboggling,” said cllr Cassin.

Cllr Adrienne Wallace described Visual as “a fantastic amenity in Carlow”; however, she said she would like to see “a greater degree of transparency”. She questioned the wages of the centre’s “higher earners” and spoke of “rumours about wages of €350,000”, a comment that drew gasps of disbelief from the chamber.

Cllr Andrea Dalton said Carlow “was blessed to have such a fine facility in our county”. She described the centre as a national space and assured it of her full support.

Cllr John Pender also asked about “the prohibitive costs” of running an event in Visual.

“I know there are a lot of schools and local organisations who want to run something in Visual, but the costs are too prohibitive, particularly when they need to be there for maybe rehearsals in advance, so groups are going to other venues,” he said.

“I would ask you to be as lenient as possible when it comes to the costs,” he added.

Ms O’Brien accepted that acts and events going to other venues had been happening since before the pandemic. She pointed to the George Bernard Shaw Theatre’s capacity of 350, while other venues can hold up to 600.

“We are very aware of this. It’s a very competitive market,” she said.

Responding to cllr Cassin, Ms O’Brien remarked “I wouldn’t say we are haemorrhaging money”, but pointed to the costs involved, adding that the council’s subvention was being used across all aspects of the building, including the theatre and visual arts.

Ms O’Brien insisted that community groups are offered reduced rates but stated that often the definition of ‘community groups’ can be challenging, adding that some community groups actually operate on a professional level. She also added that the arts centre did face scheduling challenges when it came to fitting people into the diary.

For a professional act, the cost of the George Bernard Shaw Theatre for one night is €1,200 plus VAT; for community groups, it’s €900 plus VAT; and for schools, it’s €600 plus VAT for one night.

Ms O’Brien insisted that the salaries at Visual are “average” and utterly rejected the notion of salaries of €350,000. She said the team at Visual is “small and incredibly hardworking”.

Cllr Fintan Phelan suggested pushing corporate events, while cllr Ken Murnane said the programme for 2023 was “very impressive”.

Cllr Arthur McDonald described as “disgraceful” the comments made by cllr Wallace and was critical of her decision to ask a question based on rumours.

Cllr Charlie Murphy described Visual as an asset but asked about hosting events “to get ordinary people in”, such as “bingo or a goose club”.

“If you want to organise a bingo night, you are very welcome to contact us. It’s not the strangest thing we’ve been asked,” smiled Ms O’Brien.

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