Castlefield Gallery, Manchester: Jumping hurdles (2002)

Jumping hurdles, spinning plates and chasing moving goalposts are vivid metaphors for the skills demanded of arts managers. They all apply when it comes to managing a new building or major refurbishment project.

Hope London
Creative Business & Entrepreneurship | 12 September 2011
This article was previously published in Arts Professional on 8 April 2002.

The Board of Manchester’s Castlefield Gallery engaged me as a consultant in early 1998 to revive a relocation feasibility study that had stalled some years before. The gallery had few resources then and we struggled constantly against the odds. My role was to help them achieve financial stability and move the organisation forward. At the start, we had little idea of the odds of making a successful Lottery bid to the Arts Council of England (ACE) and never imagined a gestation period of four years. In July 1999 the gallery received an ACE Lottery grant to purchase and fit-out a purpose-designed contemporary art space— but that was only the beginning of a process which was to take a further three years to complete.

Feasibility and options
The decision to engage in a major capital project should be taken only if it makes sense, evidenced by a sound business plan that includes realistic income projections sufficient to cover future staff and operating costs. The aim of a building project is to strengthen the organisation: if the project is over-ambitious, the organisation may find itself in a weakened position. A well-considered decision, however, can yield a new building that will support strategies for sustainability, growth, and artistic programmes.

Castlefield Gallery opted to relocate to a new building with greatly improved facilities but limited increase in costs. Founded in 1984 by a group of Manchester-based artists, the gallery had always occupied a Victorian arcade shopfront boasting high ceilings and natural light. Like many other artist-initiated venues, it was located in an area of post-industrial urban decline and affordable rents. Over the years, the small gallery achieved a remarkable reputation.

However, serious problems bubbled under the surface. The most urgent was finance. The gallery was annually funded at that time, and just covered its costs. Although the space was let from the city council at a substantial reduction from commercial rent, regeneration was underway in the late nineties and property values were booming. Rent and service charges were set to rise to a level that threatened to put the organisation in deficit.

When the ACE approved funding for a feasibility study, we conducted an options appraisal and concluded that staying in the old space, even if refurbished, was not a practical alternative. It was clear that inherent limitations of the space were affecting the gallery’s ability to operate to its potential. The cellar office / workshop area offered no privacy for concentrated work or meetings. There was no disabled access, but installation of a lift would have consumed too large a part of the space. Moreover, there was no point investing large sums on a rented space unless a long-term lease could be negotiated at favourable terms. Moving was the obvious answer.

Purchasing a space would enable cost control by eliminating recurring rent increases, provided the operating and maintenance costs of the new space remained within budget. We decided to pursue this course and to remain in the Castlefield area in keeping with the gallery’s origins. We believed the best chance of securing a grant was to keep the capital budget well under a million pounds, in line with the small scale of the organisation. There were some unoccupied warehouses and railway arches available, but the option of a derelict space carried the risk of potentially expensive structural problems. A new building might mean easier cost control, but was almost certainly beyond our means. Fortunately, a third option presented itself when the gallery found its ideal partner in Crosby Homes NW Ltd., developer of new apartments in Manchester city centre. They offered a substantial discount on the purchase of a 150-year lease on a shell space within a new apartment complex within walking distance of the old gallery, as well as cash funding, in return for agreed sponsorship benefits. Their contribution provided the match funding needed for the ACE award.

A potentially devastating setback occurred when the space originally identified became unavailable. An alternative was proposed, but ACE required a fully amended plan including assessment of the suitability of the site, new designs for the fit-out, and valuation. This took time, money, patience, and unerring belief that we would find a way for the project to proceed. The sponsor kindly agreed to fund revised architectural plans that ACE ultimately approved. As it turned out, the new site had far better street presence than the one originally proposed.

Negotiation occurs throughout the project, including contracts with external service providers— the lead artist, architects, and professional consultants. It’s important to use the negotiation process to get any questions answered, to establish good working relationships and to keep fees to an agreed limit. For Castlefield Gallery, the contract negotiation for purchase of the building lease was complicated. We had to agree in detail what was included in the raw space, and the timing of the purchase had to be co-ordinated to coincide with the release of funds from ACE. As the gallery occupies part of a residential development, we wanted to agree terms that would keep the neighbours happy without placing unreasonable constraints on the artistic programme.

The team
A team of committed, motivated people is essential. In the gallery’s case, three part-time staff members and the Consultant Director comprised the core team, assisted by trainees and volunteers. External consultants and advisers are part of the team, including the lead artist, architects and a range of professionals with specialised knowledge such as VAT consultants, web designers, solicitors and quantity surveyors. The project budget must be sufficient to include their fees, as well as additional staff time for in-house project management. The Board is a key part of the team. The gallery’s Board includes artists, a property developer, architect, solicitor, accountant, curator and museum design consultant. All made valuable contributions at critical stages, and were available to consult with staff as required.

Behave like a business
The nature of the building process requires accurate budgets and record keeping. ACE requires seemingly endless update reports, but these can actually assist the process if they are used to create timely snapshots of everything that is happening, from the project cash flow and budget to the development of artistic programming and marketing plans. The VAT conundrum is a potential problem for many charitable organisations. If you wish to seek 100% VAT reclaim, then ensure the organisation operates as a business within its charitable objectives.

Secure specialist advice, and only take this course if it is appropriate.

Commitment to a clear vision, agreed with the team, is the best way to overcome obstacles. Project leaders fully engaged with the vision of a successful outcome will inspire the commitment of the team, share their enthusiasm with funders and sponsors, and find creative solutions to the many challenges that will arise during the course of the project.

Hope London is an independent arts consultant and Consultant Director of Castlefield Gallery, and lectures in arts management at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts and the University of Warwick.

Castlefield Gallery is Manchester’s first artist-run contemporary art space. It will re-open to the public on April 21.