The Victoria Institute has started 2021 in another lockdown with all its spaces closed. This is not good for the old girl – not only do we miss the community buzz, but also the income!
The Institute has lost lots of revenue during 2020 with both the theatre closed and COVID restrictions only allowing the ground floor Gallery to be open. We managed to host Secret Artist and some wonderful artist exhibitions during the Festival period last year and we also had a remarkably successful Christmas Fair – but by the end of last year the books showed only a £12 surplus.
The global pandemic is probably the toughest challenge the VIC has faced yet since opening in 1897. The Institute is of course doing all it can to survive. We are watching our costs very carefully and we have already and will continue to make a case for Government support. It will perhaps be no surprise though, that the VIC has always experienced difficulties balancing its books from time to time. Very soon after opening in 1897 it found expenditure quickly exceeding income. It solved its problem then by taking out a loan and building the most amazing Billiard Hall behind the Main Building. It is this wonderful space, the old Billiard Hall, known to everyone in the town as the Red Room, which could possibly save Victoria again 130 years later.
The Hall managed to survive 2 World Wars and a Depression before another income crisis forced a second change to take place. One billiard table was moved upstairs, and the now empty hall was turned into a dance floor complete with blocked out windows, lowered ceiling, flashing disco lights, and a bar in the corner. With the Red Room at the back and the Members Bar at the front, the Institute became a popular community centre for the town – a thriving Members Club supported a host of activities. Children were entertained in the Red Room with slide shows while the parents got down to the more serious things in life at the Members Bar. The VIC became even more well known and loved.
But then revenues slowly started to decline and eventually things started to pack up – the central heating stopped, and the roof began to leak. The Members Club was forced to close with mounting debts.
More recently, a group of volunteers have slowly brought the building back to life. Drip Action Theatre has firmly and successfully established itself in the building and the Boathouse Ballet School has joined. Several artists now use the spaces to work and exhibit. Before the pandemic, all manner of groups were using the building – learning and protest groups, community choirs and lots of leisure classes in Yoga and Pilates – there was even a Table Tennis Club and a Church Group. An amazing group called AKIN – Arundel’s first creative collective – also now use the building regularly. All the spaces have been redecorated, new toilets fitted, and a new gas boiler has been reconnected. Before the pandemic, the VIC was thriving again – being used by lots of people and not only managing to keep itself safe, warm, and useful, it was balancing its books!
The VIC has always wanted to do more of course – not only to pay all the bills and improve what is on offer, but also because, perhaps something we always knew but this pandemic has brought very sharply into focus, is how important art, culture, education, dance, and quite simple, ordinary human interaction is to us all. The VIC Team would argue that improving the overall cultural life of the town, particularly for youngsters, is just as important as a thriving High Street or having successful visitor destinations. The Team would also argue very strongly today that we are going to need this space more than ever after the pandemic.
Reading through the few records we have in the VIC; we have always been struck how time after time the VIC tried to help the community after a major national disaster. There was, for example, huge concern and help organised for returning WW1 soldiers. Going back to our youngsters; when we can open again, the VIC would want to help both primary schools recover from the awful ravages of a locked down life. Before the pandemic hit, we were already trying to plan sessions at the VIC for children during the holidays – pop up Creative Academies we were thinking. Whole days were planned to be filled with music, dance, theatre, and art. We were also planning Masterclasses for the adults – getting actors and artists to come and talk about their work.
Now here is the thing – just as the Billiard Hall saved the VIC in 1901 maybe it could do it again in 2021. The VIC applied late last year to the Culture Recovery Fund to help transform the Red Room into a much more flexible, vibrant space. Our application argued that to get more daylight into the building, redecorate it, renew its equipment, and make it more flexible would help confirm the future of the whole building. We already were making a reasonable profit out of the existing rooms, if we could add another flexible space to what was on offer, we could double our income. We want the new Red Room to hold 50 properly tiered and comfortable seats and to be so flexible that we could have a theatre one night, a cinema the next, a music venue after that (with a dance floor) and a fully functioning community hall with bar and coffee shop the next. And oh in between all that, we will have programmes that enthuse children with all the arts in half-term circuses of fun!
We have got half the money we need already from the Culture Recovery Fund – just under £41,000 – but to do the job properly we need the other half. We have started the work, we are obviously writing to everyone and anyone that might be remotely interested in helping us, but we have also started a crowd funding site. It is called Spacehive and it is supported by West Sussex County Council. If we play our cards right, we might even get some matched funding out of Arun District or West Sussex.
But what an opportunity! The town’s own cinema and state of the art small theatre and another glorious space for all of us to enjoy ourselves in – meeting up with friends and family, celebrating the end of a pandemic, just celebrating being alive, exercising together, dancing or watching movies. A wonderful, well equipped creative space for all our children.
This space is owned by the town’s people, its run by the town’s people and it wants to serve the town’s people in the best way it can. Just think of the groups of people who could benefit – certainly the young but also the not so young. The Red Room has an easier access from Bakers Hill – it really is an opportunity not to be missed. Please visit Spacehive page and let me know what you think.
John Paton, Chair of the Trustees and Management Committee of The Victoria Institute.