Our arts correspondent, BELLA BARTOCK, reports on how the council has belatedly come up with a handful of measures to see the Fairfield Halls at least partially come out of its covid-induced ‘hibernation’
A month after the venue management laid off 80 casual staff and announced that they were mothballing the Fairfield Halls until 2021 because of coronavirus, Croydon Council has slowly woken up to the situation and come up with a few ideas to keep the lights on at the borough’s principal arts venue.
But there’s to be no audiences, not yet anyway, and the Halls’ expensively refurbished bars and cafés remain in self-imposed hibernation even for takeaway business, despite the government’s recent easing of lockdown rules.
The measures, announced late on Friday, smack of afterthoughts and a panicked response to the growing realisation that the council’s relationship with BH Live, the venue managers, is close to breaking point.
As Inside Croydon was first to report, despite taking charge of the venue last September after a three-year refurbishment project, BH Live have yet to sign the lease and management contract with Croydon Council. Without any income from the venue for the foreseeable future, BH Live might walk away from the arrangement at any point.
Indeed, there were no grants for any Croydon-based arts group.
With the entire theatre and entertainment sector facing an uncertain future in the post-coronavirus “new normal”, the measures announced by Croydon Council almost amount to the Fairfield Halls becoming a £43million rehearsal studio.
The council press release was at pains to shoe-horn in a mention of BH Live into its opening paragraph, announcing that “Fairfield Halls will host a variety of creative and community uses during its period of ‘hibernation’.” The Bournemouth-based conference and leisure centre managers own website contains no updated mention of their Croydon activities.
The human dynamo at the council notionally responsible for the arts in the borough, and for forging a bright new future for the Halls since the expensively undertaken and badly mismanaged and incomplete refurbishment, is Oliver “Ollie” Lewis, a councillor for one of New Addington’s ward.
Many at the Town Hall are of the view that Lewis owes his cabinet position to his abilities as a golf caddie for council leader Tony Newman and his best mate, Paul Scott. But this will have left Lewis ill-equipped to reacting to a fast-developing crisis such as coronavirus has presented to the Fairfield Halls.
Thus, it is only now that the venue will be awoken from its hibernation to “be put to use by local artists and arts organisations who will be continuing their work behind the scenes”. In plain English, as a glorified rehearsal space.
Although the cash-strapped council’s agreement with BH Live was that they would not be providing any revenue funding for the venue, the Council Tax-payer will foot the bills for opening the venue and keeping it maintained and cleansed while the likes of contemporary dance group the Agudo Dance Company stage rehearsals of their touring production of Carmen in the Wreck performance space.
The clue is in the quote attributed in the council press release to Jose Agudo. “Working at Fairfield Halls with the support of Croydon Council will make a significant impact on our company recovery plan. The arts sector need this kind of residency support to prepare for 2021.”
It has taken nearly four months since the start of lockdown for the council or the Halls management to catch up with the practice of live streaming performances, which will now take place from the Concert Hall (note how the council has abandoned the use of sponsors’ name “Phoenix”, since the abrupt ending of a five-year contract with the piano suppliers), with the London Mozart Players bringing their online concerts to the Halls. Presumably, they will carefully choose a repertoire that does not require any piano accompaniment, as the Fairfield now has no pianos.
Other resident companies, the Talawa Theatre and Savvy Theatre groups, will have the venue’s spaces made available to them, which is nice, “subject to government guidance on social distancing at the time”.
According to the council, “Savvy, Talawa and LMP have all received support from Croydon Council’s Culture Relief Fund for their programming during the pandemic.”
This is £135,000 of funding diverted various cultural funds that have been suspended due to covid-19 and includes cash from the Greater London Authority awarded to Croydon as part of its Creative Enterprise Zone grant.
Lewis is quoted as saying, “We fully support our operator’s difficult decision for it to enter ‘hibernation’ to protect its future.” Though it is clear that there was little that Lewis or the council could do about BH Live’s decision, whether he supported it or not.
“We are keen that the building does not lay empty and is used by the community and our creative organisations… as much as the social distancing guidelines will safely permit,” Lewis said.
“By doing so we are helping to protect both the future of our venue and of Croydon’s much-valued cultural partners, in the hope that both will be ready to welcome back audiences and our wider community as soon as it is safe to do so.”
Croydon is London’s Borough of Culture 2023.
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