It was probably inevitable that the prolonged closure of theatres and other venues would have far-reaching consequences somewhere in the arts sector.
What is perhaps a surprise is that this is now the case with one of Ireland’s most prestigious and better-funded institutions, Dublin’s Gate Theatre, which is facing difficulties in planning for a full programme in the year ahead. Operating losses of €509,868 have led to the prospect of the Gate having to go dark for periods in 2022 – a decision no theatre, least of all one with such a long tradition and international reputation, wants to make.
After the Abbey, the Gate is the next major beneficiary of Arts Council funding – receiving €1.2 million. Despite that level of state subsidy, it relies heavily on ticket sales, so the collapse of box office revenue during the pandemic is indeed financially devastating. The Gate, however, was granted emergency funding (more than €500,000) and also availed of wage subsidies for staff who held on to their jobs after 34 layoffs. While it has to be recognised that the cost and maintenance of a performance space is a big drain on resources, its share of public funding is not insignificant. It would seem that the price of using its emergency allocation to reduce the deficit – to just over €7,000 – came at a cost to artistic output. Unlike other Arts Council funding recipients, the Gate was conspicuously absent from digital platforms during the lockdowns.
The outgoing director, Selina Cartmell, in an interview in this newspaper described the theatre's position as a "fight for survival". The chances of survival now rest on the outcome of discussions with the council. The fragility of the kind of funding model that relies so much on box office receipts has to be examined as part of this process but there are also limits to the extent of State support. The Gate has endured through other crises in the past and can do so again but this may require some radical rethinking of its identity as a producing theatre and a move towards new alliances and co-ventures.