The Witham in Barnard Castle
The Witham in Barnard Castle

THE Covid-19 lockdown dealt a “brutal” blow to Barnard Castle’s arts centre.
The Witham’s annual meeting was told the centre had made a strong start to 2020, building on successes of the previous 12 months.
Manager Susan Coffer told trustees and volunteers: “Closure on March 23 really felt brutal – it was just a moment when everything stopped.
“It was particularly difficult because we were gaining traction on building on the successes of 2019.”
She added: “There were signs of optimism for 2020. In the first quarter there were really positive figures across all areas of operation. To be stopped in our tracks felt incredibly brutal.”
The annual meeting covered The Witham’s 12 months to end of 2019. Trustees reported a “satisfactory” financial position, with the centre ending the year £33,386 in the black on an income of £536,378.
Figures showed income from all events at The Witham had increased from £111,000 in 2018 to £171,000 last year and the cafe generated an extra £30,000 compared to the previous 12 months.
The meeting was told The Witham held £74,500 in reserve, enough to cover more than three months’ operating costs. In addition, £22,000 is also set aside to cover the costs of any repairs to the building which may crop up.
Shelagh Avery, who was re-elected as chairwoman of trustees, thanked all involved at The Witham for helping to stage more than 250 events throughout 2019.
This included 21 theatre performances, 30 screenings of opera, theatre and dance, 19 film screenings, 27 comedy shows which attracted a combined audience of more than 4,000 people and 15 exhibitions. There were also ten fundraising performances in aid of the centre. Ms Avery said The Witham team had been strengthened with the appointment of Ms Coffer as manager and the recruitment of Peter Hodges as a trustee.
She said Ms Coffer had brought a wealth of experience and huge passion for the arts, while Mr Hodges’ experience in the construction industry had been of vital importance during recent work to repair the fabric of the building.
Lynda Winstanley, the former manager of Darlington Hippodrome also joined the board, bringing wide-ranging experience of the challenges involved in running a large arts venue, Ms Avery said.
She also thanked everyone who gave up their time for The Witham.
“Volunteers continued to be the backbone of the day-to-day operation,” said Ms Avery. “Their efforts supported the cafe/bar, the shop, visitor information point and the gallery. Additionally, volunteers acted as stewards at performances and screenings.”

WHAT the future holds for The Witham – as with arts centres around the country – is shrouded in uncertainty due to the ongoing Covid-19 alert, the annual meeting was told.
Manager Susan Coffer said the centre’s policy had been to “take some care” of the artists who had been booked but were subsequently unable to perform.
“We chose to postpone not cancel as the artists did not know what their future looked like. We postponed to late summer, then autumn and now it is possible the spring – we want to give them some hope that we want them to bring their work to The Witham.”
Ms Coffer said plans for the full re-opening of The Witham were constantly evolving as the Covid-19 situation developed, with officials constantly responding to guidance as it was issued.
“We need to hold our nerve and our resolve to do everything we can to bring cultural experiences and activities back into The Witham, hopefully sooner rather than later.”
Shelagh Avery, chairwoman of trustees said new appointments and a planned restructure have been put on hold.
“The business model will continue to be reviewed and will be aligned to government guidance and public confidence to use services,” she said.
“As with other community arts centres, trustees anticipate that without grant support, the finances will be challenging in the short to medium term.”
However she pointed to the reopening of the cafe and shop as steps in the right direction, along with the return of some group meetings, such as ManHealth. The first comedy show since lockdown was also staged last month, when Daniel Sloss took to the stage.