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Last Updated: Friday, 25 November 2005, 13:32 GMT
Just the ticket for arts centre
By Gareth Jones
BBC Wales business editor

Wales Millennium Centre
The WMC is a major feature of the Cardiff Bay skyline
The Wales Millennium Centre's opening night in Cardiff a year ago was a grand occasion.

And the ambitions were big too. To break even it would need to sell 350,000 tickets a year - a tall order.

With some earlier millennium projects running into financial difficulties, there was some scepticism, as Guardian opera critic Rian Evans remembers.

"There were a lot of concerns at the time that it would not meet its financial targets and would become a white elephant," she said.

Our projections were best guesses and we're delighted we're well on track to achieve those targets
WMC chief executive Judith Isherwood
But in the year since, it's been proving the doubters quite wrong.

The WMC is on course to sell all the seats it said it would and hit its income target of just over 6.5m from ticket sales.

Chief executive Judith Isherwood said there were risks attached to such a big new venture.

"Our projections were best guesses and we're delighted we're well on track to achieve those targets -it shows they were accurate predictions," she said.

"We are using the experience of this first year to prepare for the future."

Miss Saigon, photo courtesy EPO Online/Michael Le Poer Trench
Miss Saigon was one of the hit musicals at the WMC
That experience will be vital in the crucial next few years. Many people came to the WMC to see the new building itself, but as the novelty wears off can the customers be attracted back?

Another millennium project, the National Botanic Garden of Wales in Carmarthenshire, also had a very good opening year, but then faltered so badly, it almost closed before its recent recovery.

Marketing

Mike O'Connor, director of the Millennium Commission, thinks the WMC, which it also funded, is in a better position.

"The garden had a very good first year but after one visit people said, 'we've done that now'.

You have to tell people what's happening and also make them feel they are part of the whole thing
Critic Rian Evans
"But you've got to get people to come back. But whereas plants don't change much, the WMC has something that does - its shows."

But it will be tough, as the WMC acknowledges, and one thing it will have to improve, say some, is the marketing.

There have been constant complaints that too few people know what's on there, while more people from outside Wales need to be attracted.

"Marketing is a difficult beast," said Rian Evans, '"but you have to tell people what's happening and also make them feel they are part of the whole thing. They have a lot of work to do on that score."

Resident opera company Welsh National Opera is the big success story of the past year, playing to almost full houses.

But in June Ms Isherwood expressed concern about an agreement which means while the WNO provides 9% of the performances it is actually using the stage for 30% of the time for its rehearsals.

With the stage unavailable for other shows, the WMC says it may be difficult to achieve some of its business targets.

The Queen, Katherine Jenkins, Charlotte Church at the WMC for the Royal Variety Performance
The Queen meets Charlotte Church at the Royal Variety Performance in the WMC

But WNO director Anthony Freud defended the arrangement. "Any stage performance needs stage time to rehearse and we do need this amount of time.

"But moving into a new building means we're constantly alert to ways in which we can make our use of the building more efficient - that could mean mounting more activity or using the time more productively."

That could mean the WNO putting on more performances of its own, or perhaps releasing the stage for other events.

There are those who say every venue has its honeymoon followed by disappointment, others that great institutions take at least a decade to establish themselves.

After a very good opening year, at least the WMC can say it has already proved the doubters wrong - even if it is early days yet.




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