Culture Shock: Wake up, Minister. You can help save Daniel Libeskind’s Bord Gáis Energy Theatre
Minister for Arts Heather Humphreys has nothing to say about the sale of our finest performance space. Whatever happens, it mustn’t be sold to Live Nation
Glittering: the theatre on its opening night, in March 2010. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
It is now all but certain that the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, the best-appointed performance space on the island, will be sold off by Nama-appointed receivers to a commercial bidder in the next few weeks. There has been a miserable response from the new Minister for Arts, Heather Humphreys, to two concrete proposals to create space for a public and cultural stake in the superb Daniel Libeskind-designed theatre. Actually, there has not been a miserable response. There has been no response at all. No review, no committee, no study, no report, no attempt to consider where the public interest might lie in the disposal of an asset currently owned by the State itself. The theatre is highly profitable and is perfectly capable of paying off, over time, the bank debts that were raised to get it running.
Two proposals for a public stake have been made in recent weeks. Firstly, the existing owner, Harry Crosbie, offered to create a new board with public representation and to block out periods for performances by Irish companies. Then, New Beginning offered to buy the theatre for the asking price of €20 million, raise the money by “selling” seats for €10,000 each and place the theatre in a public trust. It is staggering that the Minister has completely refused to engage with either proposal or to come up with any proposals of her own. She has literally nothing to say about a development that will have consequences for the arts in Ireland for 200 years.
Nor, in fairness, has the rest of the political system shown much interest. Fianna Fáil’s arts spokesman, Seán Ó Fearghaíl, did come up with a thoughtful statement on Tuesday, calling for the sale to be withdrawn pending a review. He even suggested who might be involved in the review: the National Academy of Dramatic Art at the Lir, the National Theatre and RTÉ’s performing groups. The problem was that his statement was issued almost a week after the bidding process for the sale of the theatre closed. It is unlikely to have any effect on the process.
Which leaves us with the question of what, at this stage, in the absence of any official interest in the cultural impact of the sale, is the least-worst option. It would be nice to think that Humphreys might yet wake up and prompt her colleague Michael Noonan (who has responsibility for Nama) to make a last-ditch intervention. Nice but fanciful: the evidence that they really don’t care is too obvious to be wished away.
We are left with the harsh reality that a building that indirectly cost the public €80 million, that was developed in a zone earmarked for social purposes and that is actually in public ownership is about to pass to some private entity for something like €25 million. Given this bleak truth, does it matter which private entity gets hold of the theatre until the year 2207?
Actually, it still does. In the short term the ownership of the theatre does indeed make no difference. Live Nation, the multinational behemoth that owns or operates 138 venues worldwide (including the O2 in Dublin), has a management contract for the BGE. Whatever happens to the ownership, there is no likelihood that the programming will vary much in the next few years from its current staple of touring musicals.
Live Nation is a business, pure and simple: it is quoted on the New York stock exchange and is relentlessly focused on profit. It does this very well: the BGE’s before-tax profits last year were €2.8 million, and Live Nation’s “management fees” seem to have taken about €1.5 million of this. The impact of the ownership of the BGE on what gets on to its stage is long term, not immediate.
And, to be realistic, even if the theatre were somehow to be rescued for some kind of public ownership, there is a lot that would not change. If it is not to be a drain on the public purse, a 2,111-seat theatre needs a lot of commercial income. The number of bums you have to get on those seats is dizzying: last year 455,546 paying posteriors nestled into BGE’s plush red velvet. You’d have to be very naive to think that those seats are going to be filled most of the time by avant-garde opera, experimental dance and poetry readings. So whoever owns the BGE is going to let someone like Live Nation do a lot of the programming, which means a lot of touring British musicals.
Even within these limits, though, it still matters that the theatre is not, in fact, sold to Live Nation itself. If that happens there is no chance that any wider cultural remit will ever get a look in. Live Nation, with the O2 already secured, will have a near-monopoly on large-scale live indoor performance in Dublin – not a good thing in itself.
On the other hand, if an individual owner – Denis O’Brien has been widely mentioned – were to win out, there is some chance that impulses other than maximising profits just might operate. Prestige and philanthropy could play a part. The BGE can be perfectly profitable even if 20 per cent of its time is given over to Irish companies. It’s a pathetic hope that some rich owner might get a kick from doing that – but no more pathetic than the Minister’s silence.