We have talked to the member of the galleries reception staff concerned who told us that he saw an unusually large group of 8 or 9 young people [err, it was actually six] approaching the galleries all wearing clothing which obscured their faces [yep, they’re called hoods – it was pouring down]…He made a judgement call, which was possibly an error, that this situation could be disruptive to other people’s enjoyment of the exhibitions, so asked them to leave the galleries.
“Although it is our policy to welcome everyone into the building, he believed he was acting in the best interests of other visitors to The Lowry gallery. This is an unusual situation as we welcome thousands of visitors every week to our theatres, galleries and to our wide-ranging programme of participatory activities without incident [...there wouldn’t have been an `incident’ if they’d let them in…the `incident’ was created by The Lowry’s staff, we think].”
We were also sent a whole barrage of statistics showing the great work The Lowry does with schools and the community…`70% of participants in The Lowry’s community projects are from Salford’…`4 of the top 10 postcodes of people taking part in community projects are from Salford’…We’re sure this is all fab and true but independent researchers tell a slightly different story…
The General Public Agency (GPA) is a top nob creative consultancy whose clients include the Arts Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund. Just over a year ago they were asked to comment on a major government report called Culture at the Heart of Regeneration - and used The Lowry as an example of how it shouldn’t be done…
The GPA’s response to the government stated `…Statistics (internal Lowry Community and Education Team figures) show that the participants in the Lowry’s subsidised children’s creative workshops are mostly driven in from beyond Salford (from Manchester and the Cheshire market towns)…There are no direct public transport links between the Lowry and Salford centre. This is a powerful indication of the absence of a true commitment to engaging with the local community.’
The local watchdogs in all this, you might expect, would be Salford Council which last year gave the Lowry just over £2.5 million (£677,000 for `outreach services to schools and residents’; £250,000 `annual contribution’ and a one-off grant of £1,576,000 which nobody understands apart from the Council’s accountants who say it didn’t really happen…).
The Council, which gives The Lowry vast amounts of our money, is supposed to check how that money’s being spent though the Lowry Committee. But the public will never know how this is being done because we’re excluded from attending under `section 100A(4) of the Local Government Act 1972…as specified in Paragraph 7 of Part 1 of Schedule 12A to the Act.’ Yeah, whatever…
All we get to know about the incredibly in-depth grilling, lasting a whole 40 minutes (one committee meeting lasted just five minutes), is that the Financial Update and report on community activities are `noted’. And that’s it. That’s your public accountability. So we’ve had to do it ourselves.
Now, we’re not accountants, and forgive us if we’re thick and get everything wrong but we waded through nearly 60 pages of The Lowry’s accounts and found some stuff which we think people might like to know...
First of all, The Lowry has three companies – The Lowry Centre Trust, which is a charity; and two subsidiary companies, The Lowry Centre Limited, which runs its commercial activities, and The Lowry Centre Development Company which sorts out The Lowry’s building. Not one single person who is a director of any of these companies (apart from a couple of councillors who sit on the board of the Trust but more about them later…) actually lives in Salford – they all live in places like Hampshire, London, Bowdon and Plymouth. The Chief Executive and Director of two Lowry companies, Julia Fawcett, lives in Gatley, Cheshire.
In the year ended 31st March 2005, the directors took £380,810 in fees and what are called `emoluments’ (benefits, expenses, pension etc) and the highest paid director at the Lowry Centre Ltd got £127,596. The Lowry companies’ last total recorded retained losses stood at £7,677,594.
Salford Council gives its money (£2.5 million last year) to the Lowry Centre Trust but doesn’t formally tell the Lowry how to spend it. It hands the grant over as an `unrestricted fund’, whereas, say, the North West Development Agency gives its grant as a `restricted fund’ which states exactly what the money’s to be spent on. The Council states that £677,000 is specifically for community and education work but the Lowry Trust’s accounts only show £269,000 being spent on the operation of its `community and education’ services. Are we missing something here ?
…Meanwhile, the finances flowing between the three different Lowry companies start to get really complicated (skip this bit if you’re bored), and even the Trust’s trustees seem to be questioning what is going on. It appears that the Trust has given an interest free loan of nearly £77 million to its commercial Development Company and the trustees “are considering the extent to which this loan relates to non-charitable expenditure” (Notes to the Accounts Year ended 31 March 2005). The objects of the charity include promoting the advancement of education and fostering appreciation and knowledge of the arts. And the subsidiaries are expected to fulfil these objectives…
…But The Lowry Development Company has been involved in property speculation, taking a 50% investment in the loss making (as at 31st March 2005) Digital World Centre across the plaza from The Lowry itself. The Development Company has given the Digital World Centre a huge unsecured loan (the balance of which stood at £1,800,000 on March 31st 2005) `which is waived if it is not recovered within two years of full occupancy of the World Digital Centre’.
Unsecured loans ? Interest free loans ? Possibly` waived’ loans ? The Lowry relies on millions and millions of pounds of public money to keep it afloat. We believe it’s right to question The Lowry’s activities. In fact we’d expect the council as our elected representatives to be doing this for us - it’s called democracy, accountability, value for money and stuff like that.
So we asked leader of Salford City Council, John Merry, to explain …
“We nominate three trustees who sit on the board of the Lowry Centre Trust” he beams “But they do have a duty to act in the best interests of The Lowry as a trustee rather than as a normal member of the council.”
In other words, the Council has watchdogs on The Lowry’s board but they act in the best interests of The Lowry rather than Salford people.
The reason the public are excluded from the Lowry Committee meetings, Merry says, is that the information is commercially sensitive and has to be kept from rival theatres but acknowledges that “it is a difficulty”. Instead we have to rely on what he calls “informal briefings…which don’t appear in the minutes”…
”We don’t tell them what to do with the money but they have to account to us how they’ve spent it in terms of community activity so they can’t spend it on, say, cups of tea for themselves…and I’m happy with that” he adds “There is no direct control.”
What about 54% of the total arts budget going to The Lowry while public entertainment gets a mere 0.8% ?
“Yes it is a hell of a lot” he decides “But we do make a substantial contribution to other events – the Triathalon, for example, and November 5th…”
He struggles to think of any more…
“…We actually feel that we get good value for money from The Lowry” he insists “It’s a different sort of money we’re putting in, in the sense that we’re trying to create a prestige venue that is going to reflect back on Salford – and that’s a judgement we’ve had to make in terms of priorities…”
And does he think that Salfordians would agree with those priorities ?
“I think we can possibly talk about how we can improve our community profile, I accept that” he says.
What about the ticket prices ? The Lowry does give discounts for Salford residents for its fringe stuff – but not for the popular shows and concerts, the prices of which are beyond many average household incomes in the City…
“If you subsidise those ticket prices still further then The Lowry would make an even bigger loss…the whole place would go bust” he argues “I think The Lowry would point to a whole host of things they do in terms of community involvement…and one of the other things we’ve done is to actually subsidise things like the Bolshoi Ballet for people from Salford to attend…I understand there were tickets for the Saturday afternoon…that’s been an additional sponsorship, I think £50,000…but the point we’re making is that it promotes the name of Salford as well…what we’re trying to do is promote the idea of culture in the city and it’s not for posh people.”
What about restricting community entrance – like chucking out local kids who have come to see LS Lowry’s paintings ?
“I would say `What’s your evidence ? If you pass on to me your evidence I will take it up with the Chief Executive of The Lowry. That should not happen…But what people should realise is the tremendous positive value of The Lowry for Salford. Are you trying to say that our money is not well spent ?”