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Call To Save Arts Centre From Becoming "Lifeless, Hollowed-Out"

19 Mar 2024

One of the hubs of Christchurch's creative community faces the threat of being dissolved in the latest showdown between local council and culture.

Bureaucracy is knocking at the door - but one of Christchurch's embedded creative institutions is determined to keep them out.

The Christchurch City Council released its draft Long-Term Plan for public consultation on Monday (18 March) - with support for Te Matatiki Toi Ora The Arts Centre not just reduced, but wiped out entirely.

That's in contrast to the past three years, where Council’s plan included $1.8 million per year (average) for the Arts Centre.

This has been met with alarm and defiance by the Arts Centre's Director, Philip Aldridge.

“The Arts Centre has always had Council support. No arts and heritage precinct this size can survive without public funding.

“Without Council funding, The Christchurch Arts Centre Trust will have to be dissolved because when the current Council funding runs out on 30 June, the Trust will be heading towards insolvency.

“The Arts Centre is thriving. Why mess with it?”

Centre for Christchurch creativity

The Arts Centre is a unique one in the Ōtautahi cultural landscape. 

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Concert in The Arts Centre's Great Hall. Photo: Supplied.

It brings a whole inner-city block to life, with 23 buildings and over 70 organisations as tenants. They represent arts, performance, creatives, entertainment, cinema, food and beverage, education, three museums, Te Whare Tapere Māori arts space, and the soon-to-be-opened Ngāi Tahu creation story permanent exhibition. The core tenants include the University of Canterbury School of Music, the Observatory Hotel (with night-time stargazing open to the public), and the Health Technology Centre. 

Since the Christchurch earthquakes, 20 of the buildings have been fully restored on time and on budget.

Statistics provided by the Arts Centre detail that one million locals and visitors enter the precinct every year to attend a range of community-funded cultural events from kapa haka to opera, from Sculpture and Matariki Festivals to children’s theatre and circus arts - including this month's Off Centre arts festival.

It's also a regular and popular location for Education programmes aimed at Christchurch's school children, through funding by the Ministry of Education.

Issue of trust 

The Arts Centre belongs to the people of Christchurch - literally.

The Arts Centre of Christchurch Trust Act 2015 vests ownership in a Trust on behalf of the citizens of Christchurch.

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The Arts Centre North Quad Concert at Off Centre 2024 arts festival. Photo: Supplied.

Aldridge rejects any concept that cutting funding to the Arts Centre will lower rates.

 “The Council is being short-sighted. It’s trying to save money, but it will cost the ratepayer a lot more in the future. There’ll be legal fees and other costs as the Trust dissolves."

Aldridge points out that the Trust's ownership model means that any 
dissolution means "it’s likely the High Court will have to find a new owner (who should get the assets). This is likely to be the City Council. All the increased costs will then fall on the ratepayer. This is a case of short-term gain for long-term pain.

“If that happens, the Council will still have the same costs such as $1.2 million annual insurance. They’ll still have to focus on arts and culture activities and events, because the Act says so.  

"Maybe they think they can change the Act but there would be a public outcry. 

"Norman Kirk stood up in the Town Hall in 1973 and gifted this to the people of Ōtautahi Christchurch as an Arts Centre. The Act is there to stop anyone interfering with that gift."

Aldridge states the centre runs a tight ship financially and takes every opportunity to earn extra revenue.

“We’ve cut costs to the bone," he notes. 

"We’ve cut back on staff; some took wage cuts and staff are paid less than equivalent Council employees. We’re already run on a shoestring.

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The Arts Centre Cloisters Studio Performance at Off Centre 2024 arts festival. Photo: Supplied.

"Most of the creative events are funded by other grants, sponsors and private donors and we are supported by fantastic volunteers, including the trustees. None of this would be available to a Council-run Arts Centre."

Those grants have been significant in the running of the Centre - since the quakes, the Arts Centre's fundraiser has brought in over $30 million. All four full-time equivalent staff positions are funded by grants and arts programmes only go ahead if external funding is locked in to cover it. 

Selling off part or all of the site isn't an option - the Act of Parliament prevents it - and successive governments have denied funding requests, claiming the Centre is a local or regional asset.

Aldridge opines “It would be a sad place under bureaucratic ownership. There’d be none of these activities and events, footfall would decrease rapidly and the main income from the tenants would dry up as they leave a lifeless, hollowed-out Centre. 

"We don’t believe the Council could run The Arts Centre as well or as cost-effectively as we do.

“The Council’s ownership would spell the end of The Arts Centre. It would fail.”

Call to action

A #savetheartscentre campaign has kicked off, urging support for the organisation by making a submission to the Council to continue to fund the Arts Centre before the public consultation window closes on 21 April.

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Three Little Pigs at The Arts Centre. Photo: Supplied.

The Arts Centre is calling on the Council to absorb the Centre's annual insurance bill ($1.2m) into its own group insurance scheme, to rebate the rates ($205,000), and to provide an annual grant to cover some of the operational costs and heritage management, ($400,000).

That's a total of around $1.8m - which is the average amount the Council has paid over the past three years. The Arts Centre states that would amount to just over $1 a month for the average household.

Earlier this month, the Arts Centre saw an operatic performance of The Three Little Pigs as part of its Off Centre Festival. Now it's the Centre itself that's asking for help to stave off the Big Bad Wolf.