Tired. Poorly managed. Poorly used. Under-funded. Under-appreciated. The Fairfield Halls, half a century old, might symbolise the faded grandeur of Croydon itself. With mounting concern over the council’s arts policy, or absence of it after the axing of the Mela and music festival, David Lean Cinema and grant to the Warehouse Theatre, community groups are looking to see what could be done. SEAN CREIGHTON reports
The Fairfield Halls complex is seen as having great potential. The main concert hall has a high reputation for the quality of its acoustics. In addition to the ground floor spaces it has nine rooms for hire upstairs. Its wall space has potential for more exhibitions. It is a “fabulous piece of real estate, an asset, a treasure”. It could be a thriving centre.
However, the hire cost has become too high for many cultural groups, who are now looking for cheaper venues.
The land and the buildings are owned by the council, so it is landlord to the board of trustees. The Halls had been completely funded by the council up to 1993. The board and management then had to find other forms of funding. Most town theatres are run by charities with sponsors and some grant aid. Croydon Council provides significant grants to Fairfield Halls, and it also providing millions of pounds in capital funding for the planned refurbishment.
At the meeting organised last week by the South Croydon Community Association, it was determined that there are two strands to what the Halls provides: the theatre, concerts and other performances for the public; and conferences and hospitality. The website, the meeting agreed, is “atrocious in its design”, “a dog’s dinner”, and difficult to make bookings online. A button to one side allows people to go to a separate conference and hospitality website, which is far superior to the main site.
Those at the meeting had found it difficult to work out exactly what Croydon Council was providing for Fairfield Halls’ refurbishment. The council’s report from May 2011 contained no figures on the grounds it was sensitive to Fairfield Halls. A sum of £25 million was mentioned in a 2011 press release. Up to £26.5 million was cited in paragraph 11.8 of the Cabinet financial strategy report of 21 February 2011, and again in the Draft Revenue and Capital Budget Book 2012-2013.
In a 2012 press release, the amount of public money being provided to the Fairfield Halls had risen to £27 million. The Halls’ annual accounts for 2011-2012 state the figure is £25million.
Simon Thomsett, the Fairfield Halls’ manager appointed in May 2010, is an arts administrator who came from the Hackney Empire. His appointment was supposed to be about pushing up the arts activities, but those attending the meeting said that they had seen no sign that he has been able to achieve this.
The meeting sought to compare another town which matched Croydon in size, population, and cultural and ethnic breakdown. The closest match is Leicester. Leicester has three theatres: The Curve opened in 2008 with money from the National Lottery, with residential companies largely responsible for productions; there is also Little Theatre and the De Montfort Hall.
Charlotte Davies, the chair of SCCA, summed up by saying that Fairfield Halls needs to be looked at it in the broader context of what was happening in culture and education in the borough. One-third of children in our schools do not have English as their first language. There is a high level of youth unemployment. Croydon College, next door to Fairfield Halls, is half empty and is also trying to get conference bookings. The Central Library is looking tired and unloved; after nearly three years of uncertainty and a privatisation process, the staff “seem confused”.
The events organised last year by the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Festival and its artistic director Jonathan Butcher (also artistic director at the Clyde Road-based Surrey Opera), and local pianist and teacher Fred Scott through his Soundpractice music agency show the potential of what can be done be done at the Halls. Scott would like to organise an International Piano Festival and Liszt-related events, given the virtuoso composer and performer visited Penge and Sydenham.
A new approach should involve more arts and music-based activities, recording studios, a youth arts programmes, the encouragement of new cultural enterprises and business. All this could contribute to providing an integrated education programme. As a teacher, Davies said she would like to see young people becoming active in theatre and the funding of arts apprenticeships. Local charities want to do things and can apply for funds from the Lottery and Arts Council for projects which could be run in the Halls.
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