Mareel: if you build it, they will come

Friday 22nd August 2008
Shetland Centre for Creative Excellence receives HIE Funding. Artist's impression of the approach to the Mareel building (Courtesy of Shetland Arts).

Twelve years of planning, campaigning and even acrimonious debate over the proposed Shetland centre of excellence for international creativity have moved closer to reality with Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) major investment of £965,000. The multi-purpose music, cinema, arts and education centre will be sited in Lerwick alongside the new Museum and Archives and is due to open in Summer 2010.

The building will incorporate a 160-seat cinema, plus 35-seat studio screen, a balconied auditorium with a flexible seated/standing capacity of 250-750, rehearsal rooms, a recording studio, multimedia production suite, a café-bar and extensive educational resources. The venue will provide opportunities for local musicians, filmmakers, dancers and other arts practitioners to develop their skills, as well as provide similar opportunities for sound, lighting and recording engineers and those with an interest in digital media.

The cost of £9.3m sees £5.2m allocated by Shetland Islands Council (SIC), a further £2.2m from the Scottish Arts Council Lottery Fund, with HIE bringing the funds to  £8,205,000 - a balance due from European Regional Development funding.

"The project’s lengthy gestation – dating back to at least 1996 – having entailed extensive local research and consultation, prior to rigorous assessment of the plans by external funding bodies, some Shetlanders had always seen Mareel as a luxury too far, even for their oil-rich economy," writes Sue Wilson in High Arts. "As the credit crunch bit, and the mood of financial anxiety spread, such arguments came increasingly to the fore - and as can happen in small island communities, the debate swiftly became polarised, even bitter."

"In many respects, the debate over Mareel can be seen as a microcosm of that which has always raged over public subsidy for the arts, in which the manifest exigencies of underfunded hospitals and schools are weighed against the less tangible or immediate benefits of cultural investment.

"Reflecting the current policy climate, Mareel’s promoters (chiefly the Shetland Arts Development Agency, which will run the venue) based their case primarily on an alternative bottom line, presenting the project as a crucial motor for developing Shetland’s creative industries sector – already estimated to be worth an annual £25m - and thereby generating new sources of employment as traditional industries decline.

"Education was another strong suit, with many of Mareel’s facilities designed in conjunction with Shetland College, who plan to expand their range of music technology and media production courses, offering hands-on experience in a state-of-the-art working venue. Combined with the actual entertainment on offer, it’s hoped that this will persuade more young Shetlanders to remain in the islands, as well as attracting newcomers from outside."

"The SIC finance officials’ 39-page report found Mareel’s business plan to be 'robust and well researched', although some estimates of costings were deemed 'light' and audience and income targets 'challenging'. Its overall recommendation, however, was that SIC approve the project. But the ultimate result could not have been closer, requiring the convener’s casting vote to tip the balance in favour."

An Economic Impact Study on Mareel commissioned by HIE in April highlighted that 52 full time jobs could be created. It found that the project would have positive effects on population, retention of young people and raising the profile of Shetland and the Highlands and Islands internationally in arts provision, building links with other countries.

As part of the developing cultural quarter in Lerwick where the new museum and archives, digital media businesses, architects and artists currently reside, Mareel will strengthen what is becoming an internationally competitive cluster of businesses built on innovation and creative talent.

The venue will be available for use by businesses, community groups and for the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) Millennium Institute. Mareel will also be an attraction for tourists, as well as helping to promote arts and culture of the Highlands and Islands to the wider world.

Shetland, already renowned for music development, can be further nurtured to develop creativity within Mareel including music and sound engineering courses through UHI Millennium Institute. Other features of Mareel will include a multi media production suite for film, TV, web design and digital arts.

It is proposed that the venue will act as a hub from which outreach services can be offered to the most rural Shetland communities, bringing the cinema and audience development to remote islands.

Ann Black, HIE area manager based in Shetland, said: "The creative industries are one of the world's fastest growing sectors and increasingly important to the Highlands and Islands. Mareel will represent a facility for the Highlands and Islands to symbolise the unique culture of Shetland and we very much look forward to the development of the creative industries centre on our doorstep."

Katrina Wiseman, head of transformational projects at HIE Shetland area office said: "HIE is really pleased to have made a significant contribution to Mareel which is a hugely important project for Shetland, both culturally and economically. We have a vibrant community of creative people here in Shetland, and they all have the potential to achieve further wealth for the islands through high quality jobs in a world class creative industries venue in a rural area."


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