‘It’s steeped in history, but we must look forward’

BOSS Mark Smith, chairman of the Portsmouth Cultural Trust which runs the Guildhall.  Picture: Paul Jacobs (120738-4)
BOSS Mark Smith, chairman of the Portsmouth Cultural Trust which runs the Guildhall. Picture: Paul Jacobs (120738-4)

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It may be one of the most iconic buildings in Portsmouth. But, as anyone who’d been inside the Guildhall in recent years would know, it was in desperate need of some TLC.

A small entrance, poor toilet facilities and an unattractive lobby did little to impress audiences and stars.

ON STAGE McFly at the Guildhall

ON STAGE McFly at the Guildhall

But when Portsmouth City Council considered the cost of necessary improvements, it had to find a way to fund the changes. And so the Portsmouth Cultural Trust was born.

When the contract with Developing Leisure (the private company previously running the Guildhall) came to an end, the council set up a board for a not-for-profit trust.

‘It was an alternative to local authority management or private enterprise management. The third option was to create the trust,’ explains trust chairman Mark Smith.

‘The trust is run commercially but the money made is directed back into the venue rather than being used to reward the shareholders of a parent company (as had been happening with the previous management),’ adds Mark, who grew up in Waterlooville, now lives in Petersfield and is chief executive of The Southern Co-operative.

The 10-member board also includes six other local businesspeople (some with entertainment expertise), two politicians and a naval Rear Admiral.

They have big ideas for turning the Guildhall into a ‘prime location’, not just for concerts but also for weddings, banquets, seminars, exhibitions and much more.

Steve Pitt, chairman of Portsmouth’s cultural consortium, Culture Matters, says: ‘It’s a huge challenge for a new trust to undertake, but they’ve achieved a lot in their first year and the Guildhall is definitely more accessible and moving towards being the flagship venue it used to be and should be.’

Mark says: ‘Anyone who’s been to this building will know it needs a lot of investment.

‘That takes time, but we’re on the first steps of our journey, making small changes.’

Last week saw the beginning of a revamp of the reception area.

The trust has also introduced Cafe Guildhall, running a daytime catering service.

But its biggest challenge was attracting top bands and artists to appear at the venue.

It has set up a partnership with Live Nation, the world’s leading live entertainment company which books acts for venues across the country, including Southampton Guildhall.

Mark explains: ‘Because we’re new kids on the block, it would have taken the promoter community some while to get to know the trust, but Live Nation give us credibility. By partnering with an organisation of that scale and calibre, we get an immediate profile and we’re beginning to draw in some big names.’

In recent weeks, the trust’s programming with Live Nation has included McFly, Rebecca Ferguson, Matt Cardle and Kaiser Chiefs as well as a DJ night featuring Radio 1’s Jaguar Skills, symphony orchestras, wrestling shows, a tattoo convention and Chinese New Year celebrations.

Mark says: ‘As well as trying to attract big names, we’re also thinking creatively around the edges of what we can offer because, as well as getting the likes of McFly, we also need to develop broader cultural offers.

‘World music won’t pay the rent as well as McFly does, but it will mean we’re delivering that breadth of cultural activities.’

The trust plans to increase the use of all areas of the Guildhall by letting out space for offices, rehearsals and classes, and possibly creating performance spaces such as a basement jazz studio.

Take a look at the Guildhall’s new website, launched last week (portsmouthguildhall.org.uk), and you’ll find information on events as diverse as paper crafting and knitting, guided tours, paranormal investigations and boutique markets.

Another of the additions made by the trust was a VIP ticket option at gigs and concerts. For £15 extra, any seated event ticket can be upgraded to VIP, for snacks and drinks before the show and during the interval in a private members’ room.

But this can mean costs of up to £82.50 (the cost of a top-price ticket to see Katherine Jenkins earlier this year).

Mark says ticket prices in general have risen, but this in in line with inflation and has happened at other venues.

However, statistics show these costs are not putting off gig-goers. Of the last five gigs at the Guildhall, two (Kaiser Chiefs and McFly) have been sell-outs, while The Wombats sold 81 per cent, Rebecca Ferguson sold 87 and Matt Cardle sold 65 per cent.

But Mark says: ‘The numbers are positive year-on-year in terms of number of events (360) and total number of visitors (160,000).

‘We’re delighted to have shown a bit of growth already in the first year (based on estimated figures from before the trust took over)

‘We mustn’t forget that the first year has been in the depths of economic downturn. So, the fact that those numbers are still coming through the door shows the potential for when times are easier and when we’ve done what we want to do.’

Further investment is planned to improve the VIP area, restaurant, reception, other public areas and the outside of the building, with ambitions to utilise the steps and the big bronze doors.

‘It’s a listed building, so we’ll revamp consistent with that status,’ assures Mark.

‘But although the Guildhall is steeped in history, we must look forward.

‘Something as simple as putting wi-fi in some of the backstage areas really makes a difference in enhancing our reputation as a good place to perform as well as to visit.’

Larger projects being looked at include air-conditioning the main auditorium and creating a conservatory-style restaurant.

Key to all this is the trust gaining charitable status. But Mark says: ‘Let’s not wait for that. Let’s do what we can with the small budget we have while crafting future funding plans.’

GUILDHALL HISTORY

The Guildhall was converted from a brewery and the home of Sir Thomas Ridge and opened in 1890 by Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, then the Prince and Princess of Wales.

Designed by Leeds architect William Hill, it cost £140,000 to build, supervised by Hill and fellow architect Charles Bevis.

It was badly damaged during the wartime Blitz in 1941 and only three of its walls survived.

The city corporation intended to demolish the remains after the war and build a new hall, but residents won a campaign to see it rebuilt in its original form - a mark of both the design’s popularity and the spirit of defiance against Hitler.

It was re-opened by the Queen in June, 1959.

PORTSMOUTH CULTURAL TRUST MEMBERS

Mark Smith – chief executive officer, Southern Co-operative

Janet de Bathe – former chief executive officer, Learning Links

Anthony Brown – marketing manager, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Simon Frost – chief executive officer, Parity Trust

Chris Gilder – senior manager, Warings

Nick Leach – head of catering, University of Portsmouth

David Steel – Rear Admiral, Royal Navy

Jacquie Shaw – head of communications and operations, Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

Robin Sparshatt – Portsmouth City Council corporate trustee

Gerald Vernon-Jackson – Portsmouth City Council corporate trustee