Thursday 14 December 2017

Show must go on despite turmoil in the economy

With money so tight running the National Concert Hall has never been more difficult -- but this Dubliner remains optimistic about the future. By Siobhan Creaton

Dubliner Simon Taylor has found his dream job. "There aren't many opportunities like this," the new National Concert Hall's chief says as he settles into Dublin's Earlsfort Terrace.

"For all our financial problems Dublin is still a nice place to live. It is still quite a thriving city and the arts have a huge amount to offer."

Taylor has just taken on the challenge of running one of the country's top musical institutions at a time when money has never been scarcer -- but he is highly optimistic about its prospects.

"Times are tricky," he admits, "so we have to focus our efforts differently. We don't need to reduce our ambition too much. We just need to keep an eye on the long term and make short-term adjustments."

The NCH has had to face up to the harsh economic realities and figure out how to survive and thrive in these straitened times.

Taylor says the number of people attending the more than 300 events it stages each year has dipped but it is managing to hold its own.

"We have a very loyal audience who have been with us for over 30 years and we are doing better than a lot of other venues because of this loyalty," he says.

"This is a venue that people who love orchestral and classical music have gotten used to coming to and the challenge is to keep the programme strong enough to keep them on board."

Taylor, who trained as a classical guitarist, was forced to abandon that career after breaking his thumb. Since then he has mostly worked with orchestras.

In the 1990s he was head of the RTE orchestra and performing groups before switching to work with Lyric FM and at BBC Radio Ulster's classical music programmes. His last post was as chief executive of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

"I have been in the industry for 30 years so I am familiar with the business model," he says. "I know how this building works, am used to working with promoters, I know how the orchestra works and all of the artists. Everything is familiar but it is a different challenge."

At the moment he is booking artists two to three years ahead in the hope that things will have turned around by them.

"The worse thing to do in a recession is to retreat too much," he says. "Then you lose your audience and your base and end up not having them when things get better."

In the meantime, Taylor has to worry about how to manage the NCH's finances to literally keep the show on the road. Last year it received a €2.5m grant from the Government, which is about 40pc of its total budget.

It finds the rest from its performances and from donations. "We have always had to raise income ourselves," he says.

A rich source of funds for many years now has come from donors who are part of the NCH's network of "friends".



Core audience

"They are our core audience," he says, and while they are giving less than they used to, finding companies to sponsor events has also become very difficult.

"Banks and other financial services companies were generous sponsors in the past but now that they are bust the challenge is to cultivate others. We have to reposition our offer and to think of companies as partners rather than sponsors," he suggests.

The harshest economic blow so far has been the shelving of an ambitious redevelopment plan for the historic building that would have created a 2,000-seat auditorium with modern facilities.

Taylor says the NCH urgently needs refurbishment and he will be working with its newly appointed board of directors to find between €30m and €35m for a more modest facelift.

"We need to maintain the venue at the standard people have come to expect," he says.

Concert Hall

Top of their agenda is a refurbishment of the main concert hall and to restore the original recital hall that would create a 500-seat space that could be of great benefit to local musicians.

"Dublin lacks a really good recital hall," he explains "and there is no dedicated rehearsal space for the National Symphony Orchestra, which is based here, to rehearse."

This means they take over the main hall each day until about 4pm, which limits the amount of events it can offer there.

"I hope we can get a capital allocation from the Government," he says. "I hope the Government will think of it as an investment in the context of cultural tourism. Most of it does not need to be spent until 2014."

Arts Minister Jimmy Deenihan has urged all of the cultural organisations to find other sources of income and to become less reliant on the bankrupt state for their funding.

In response, the NCH will launch its philanthropic fundraising efforts in the US next month at a black tie gala concert and dinner with Irish flautist James Galway at New York's Lincoln Centre.

It is the first of what it hopes will be many events hosted by the American Friends of the Arts in Ireland association chaired by Washington-based Irish lawyer Mark Tuohey.

Not only is the NCH hoping

to raise money this way but to also foster long-term partnerships with artists, orchestras and other arts supporters across the Atlantic.

The arts are entirely privately funded in the US and there is a long tradition of this type of philanthropy.

Fundraising

"We have been told that we need to raise friends before we raise funds. That is the first rule of fundraising and we will be hoping to build connections in Irish America and amongst artists there in the years ahead," he says.

There is a touch of embarrassment about having to resort to this type of fundraising for the arts in Ireland, he admits.

"The Americans might be looking and saying 'you had all that money, what the hell did you do with it?'," he suggests.

"But they can also see we are taking the measures to turn it around so there is no point in agonising over it."

It could yet offer a generous US donor the right to name the main hall after themselves or a relative, he says.

The arts can play a big part in Ireland's economic recovery he believes.

"As we move forward I hope we will see arts and culture as part of the solution rather than part of the problem. As a small country we have punched well above our weight in terms of producing music and writers. We need to celebrate that."

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