The Arts Centre - a national taonga?


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Creative support or commercial success – The Arts Centre caught in the middle

By Sally Blundell of Frank Film

On a cold May morning, a tramful of tourists stares out at a large “Save the Arts Centre” banner dominating the historic stone clock tower in central Christchurch. “If anybody in the tram’s got a spare million,” the driver quips, “the Arts Centre Trust would love to hear from you.”

How did it get to this?

Te Matatiki Toi Ora The Arts Centre is an award-winning hub for Christchurch’s arts and cultural events and activities; a centre, wrote Irene Preissler, co-editor of the 2021 book World Culture Districts, featuring 15 of the most important cultural districts on six continents, “of and for the arts”.

“It’s pretty rare anywhere in the world to have the largest collection of heritage buildings in the country which also happens to be an arts centre,” says embattled Arts Centre director Philip Aldridge.

Do we take it for granted?

“Absolutely,” says Christchurch City councillor Sara Templeton. Early this year the Arts Centre discovered the soon-to-be-released Christchurch City Council’s draft long term plan included no funding allocation for the Arts Centre. For the past three years the council has given the Arts Centre $1.83 million a year. Then – nothing. “It doesn’t make any sense at all,” says Aldridge.

From 1973, when then Prime Minister Norman Kirk announced the gifting of the former university to the people of Christchurch as an arts centre, the 23 heritage buildings, run by the Arts Centre of Christchurch Trust, housed galleries, craft studios, shops, theatres, cinemas, cafés, restaurants, bars and markets. Following the 2011 earthquake, thanks to a fortuitous increase in insurance cover and an ongoing fundraising programme, the Arts Centre embarked on a $290 million strengthening and restoration project. As Aldridge says, they restored 20 of the 22 Category 1 heritage buildings “to time and to budget".

The Arts Centre is now home to about 70 organisations covering art, performance, entertainment, cinema, food, workshops and creative industries – including Frank Film. Core tenants include the University of Canterbury School of Music, the Observatory Hotel and the Health Technology Centre. Last year it broke pre-earthquake visitor numbers; this month its new Saturday market was seething.

So what’s gone wrong?

The Council is under the pump – already it is looking at a rates increase of over 13% for the coming year – and the Arts Centre is expensive to run. Insurance has shot up from $125,000 a year before the earthquakes to $1.2m, annual rates now sit at $205,000 and heritage buildings are costly to maintain.

The Arts Centre has asked the Council to absorb its annual insurance bill, cover the rates bill, and provide an operational grant of $400,000. Total cost, about $1.8 million. As Aldridge argues, although tenants pay market rents, the Trust’s remit under the 2015 Arts Centre of Christchurch Trust Act – to foster and promote art, culture, creativity and education – prevents all costs being passed on to tenants.

“The profit that these organisations deliver to the community isn't a financial one. Throughout the world these sorts of institutions that benefit the community require public subsidy. Yes, there has to be some fiscal responsibility and sustainability within that but if you remove the subsidy from any cultural organisation then it fails. If we take the money away from Te Papa it will be gone, if we don’t subsidise the museum there will be no museum.”

He says the Centre delivers its arts programmes to the community “on a shoestring.”
“The cost to the public purse when we are subsided is $200,000 a year.”
Without Council funding, argues Aldridge, the Arts Centre would have to dissolve the Trust. The only possible new owner, he says, would be the Council.

Around the Council table, views are divided.
“I’m not sure that Council is the best owner of the Arts Centre,” says Templeton. “The Arts Centre Trust is able to get a huge amount of philanthropic funding and people simply don't donate money to councils. So there’d be extra costs because of that.”

Councillor Sam MacDonald wants to explore the option further.
“What we’ve said is, can our officials come up with what a plan would look like… What we're saying is, if we were holding it, is that how we would run it? We just want an assessment effectively saying, does it make sense to have this many people running the place for the size of it and things like that?”

At a Council meeting last month, Mayor Phil Mauger accused the Arts Centre of taking the “narrowest view possible” of its legislative responsibility and suggested new trustees “who can do the job” be appointed.

Inevitably public feedback has zeroed in on the Dux de Lux building. During his 2022 mayoral campaign, Mauger said he was keen to work with Redux, the group trying to bring the Dux back to the Arts Centre. That year the Arts Centre rejected a proposal by Redux to restore the bar/restaurant in return for a 50-year rent waiver, saying it could not commit to a tenancy that would give no return for half a century. Mauger described that decision as “short-sighted”.

This year again, the Mayor criticised the Arts Centre for not prioritising the Dux building. As he told The Press, "I think there is still an opportunity for us, the council, to buy that building and maybe look after it ourselves or get someone else to get it fixed."

The idea that private interests could run some of these spaces better and more economically rumbles underneath this debate. Changing the legislation to allow for more private interests, says Aldridge, “would be a hell of a fight”.

According to MacDonald, the intent of the legislation “is quite enabling”.
“What it effectively says is that it doesn’t make sense to have this place sitting entirely empty because you can't afford to run it so there will be aspects of it that actually makes sense to rent out so you can fund the other things. It will be just whether that balance is right.”

It is difficult to change legislation, he agrees, “but again that might be something local MPs are keen to look at.”
Does the Council have other plans for the buildings?
“Nothing is off the table. But just at the moment, nothing is on the table either,” he says.
Both the Arts Centre Trust and the Council are looking at what can be done for less than the requested $1.8 million; both are looking at the submissions to the draft plan.

As Councillor Andrei Moore wrote on his Facebook page on 1 May, of the 7000 submissions, several thousand were regarding the Arts Centre “and there are more to come”.

“If the people come back and say we are happy to pay another .4% a year,” says MacDonald, “then that’s something we will consider.”

“We subsidise sport really heavily,” says Templeton. “We provide a whole pile of spaces and places for people to exercise, recreate and have a lot of fun. And not everyone’s sporty. A lot of people are arty or a lot of people are a combination and we need to do that both.”


Producer/Director/Cameraman/Interviewer: Gerard Smyth
Writer/Researcher: Sally Blundell
Editor: Oliver Dawe
Second Camera/Researcher: Ellie Adams
Line Producer: Erina Ellis
Sound Design/Mix: Chris Sinclair
Drone: Tom Cuthbert
Finance: Jo Ffitch


The Arts Centre - Christchurch
Historical photos thanks to the Arts Centre
Arts Centre Tenants
SCAPE Public Art
Christchurch Trams
Christchurch Academy of Dance
Loopy Tunes