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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 November, 2004, 14:21 GMT
Concern on arts centre future

By Gareth Jones

Preview audience at Wales Millennium Centre

As the 106m Wales Millennium Centre prepares to open, BBC Wales' business editor examines its long-term financial future.

You realise how challenging are the centre's financial targets when you read its business plan.

With 1,900 seats, the main Donald Gordon Theatre is bigger than anything on New York's Broadway. To break even it needs to sell 350,000 tickets a year.

This means that on average the theatre must be 70% full across some 270 performances, including 41 matinees.

The theatre plans to attract the crowds with a programme of opera, ballet and smash-hit musicals.

As the song goes, there is no business like showbusiness. But while the industry is characterised by flops and "turkeys," the occasional dazzling success can more than make up for the failures.

Getting 70% capacity at the height of summer may be possible, but will people drive for an hour through rain or snow to see a show in January?
Ana Gaio, City University, London
Anyone in the West End will tell you that, so I decided to take the centre's plans to London for an outside view.

Ana Gaio, who heads the arts management programme at the City University, told me: "Selling 350,000 tickets a year seems a tall order.

"Especially when south Wales does not have a tradition of big audiences for musicals and ballet. Also, the figures don't seem to take account of the seasons.

'Cutting edge'

"Getting 70% capacity at the height of summer may be possible, but will people drive for an hour through rain or snow to see a show in January?" she said.

Judith Isherwood
Judith Isherwood formerly helped run Sydney Opera House
Next stop was the Albert Hall to meet the UK's leading classical music promoter, Raymond Gubbay. With his spectacular performances of opera and classical music able to attract up to 20,000 paying customers, this is a man who knows how to put 'bums on seats'.

Even he has his flops, though. He recently had to close his Savoy Theatre because it was not popular enough.

But he believes the centre will avoid the same fate.

"You've got to be cutting edge in the way you market and publicise to get the audience.

"I'm sure the WMC is up to the job. They'll do well - it's great for Cardiff and great for Wales.

We've had the box office open for just a month and we've already sold 10% of what we need for the whole year
Sir David Rowe-Beddoe, centre chairman
The centre will succeed or fail on the strength of its programme. Rian Evans, a Guardian opera critic, said the programme announced so far had some real highlights, like the Kirov and Australian Ballet.

However, she has some concerns. "Where are the great new musicals we were promised? I think too they will have to get bigger and better musicals if financial sustainability is be guaranteed."

Dark nights

Centre chairman Sir David Rowe-Beddoe said the 350,000 figure was realistic.

"Remember, the catchment area for the theatre goes out much further than south Wales. We've had the box office open for just a month and we've already sold 10% of what we need for the whole year.'"

The business plan makes interesting reading in another important respect. Several times it refers to an agreement struck with one of the building's residents, Welsh National Opera.

WNO has stipulated a total of 90 "dark" nights every year to carry out its full stage rehearsals. On these nights, the WMC will be unable to programme other performances, reducing its ability to maximise revenue from the theatre.

The plan makes clear that the centre regards this as less than ideal: "The fact remains that while WNO continues to adhere to its planned activity levels (as enshrined in the 997-year lease contract) this will continue to be an area of considerable risk to the WMC".

Will this agreement prove a crucial obstacle? Sir David thought not, and was hopeful the WNO would not need as many dark nights as it thought.

Predicting success in showbiz is notoriously difficult. The centre has many things going for it, not least more than 2m a year in subsidy and a strong commitment to succeed.

It will be the customers who will decide its ultimate sustainability.



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