Fortune sees arts hub as its future

Dunedin's Fortune Theatre closed its door earlier this week. Photo: ODT
Dunedin's Fortune Theatre closed its door earlier this week. Photo: ODT
The dilapidated state of Dunedin’s Fortune Theatre is not to blame for the collapse of the theatre company, the board’s chairwoman says.

But the company now sees its future as the "theatre in residence" at a refurbished community performing arts hub in the former Sammy’s venue.

The comments by Fortune board of trustees chairwoman Haley van Leeuwen came as a previously private submission from the theatre company to the Dunedin City Council was made public yesterday.

The theatre company, which confirmed on Tuesday it was closing, had been given the unusual opportunity to submit to councillors behind closed doors at last week’s council 10-year plan hearing.

A copy of the written submission detailed the poor state of the council-owned building, including "potential health hazards", and the ailing state of the company’s finances.

The building was an inflexible space and "no longer fit for purpose", in part because of restricted access for the elderly or disabled, and even a costly upgrade would not help, it said.

"It would be unrealistic to expect the DCC to invest in a refurbishment of this historic venue that, even if completed to a very high level of specification and cost, would still fall short of the flexible performance space required."

However, Ms van Leeuwen said yesterday it was the theatre company’s unsustainable business model, not the state of the building, that prompted the closure.

There was no doubt the building needed work, as the steepness of its stairs and mould in basement levels were health and safety hazards, the roof and windows leaked and air-conditioning and heating "weren’t quite right", she said.

But she "couldn’t fault" the council support over the years, and had not asked for a bail-out from ratepayers because she did not see the point of using their money "to plug a hole that’s never going to be fixed."

Council figures, released yesterday, showed it had contributed $1.559million in grants and rates relief for the Fortune Theatre since 2003.

That included more than $120,000 in grants annually over the past five years, an additional $70,000 grant in November last year, and $135,000 on building maintenance since 2008, a council spokesman said.

Creative New Zealand gave $500,000 a year, and the Otago Community Trust contributed between $60,000 and $80,000 a year over the last decade.

Ms van Leeuwen said the theatre company’s future now centred on Sammy’s conversion into a performing arts hub.

The Fortune submission envisaged hosting shows across all arts genres, offering flexible performance spaces and seating configurations, teaching and corporate function spaces and a licensed cafe.

The Fortune Theatre could be the "professional theatre in residence" under a new brand, but other performance groups would also be encouraged to use the space.

The "high-profile" location would lend itself to marketing, and having an "innovative and contemporary performance site" would attract acts that might otherwise avoid the city, helping ensure year-round use.

Sponsors’ money was "better spent on building a future than propping up the past", it concluded.

The council has earmarked $5 million  in its draft 10-year plan for Sammy’s, and is expected to debate the building’s future later this month.

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