THE Witham’s centre manager has laid bare the harsh reality of job losses and cutbacks brought about by the Covid lockdown.
Susan Coffer was speaking to Barnard Castle Town Council’s partnership committee just before the latest lockdown when she revealed the art centre’s permanent staff had been cut to just two, and casual staff manning the cafe had to be let go.
It is only through the help of volunteers that the cafe was able to reopen.
Even through the closure, work continued at The Witham, she said.
Ms Coffer added: “Initially there was a huge amount of work in thinking basically about how you mothball a building for a period of time, but also, we were very conscious about how we approach the artists, many of whom are freelance – they rely on those performances for all of their income.”
She said the decision was taken to postpone, rather than cancel, performances to provide hope for the artists. Sometimes the performances were rescheduled two or three times.
Getting performances back when restrictions are lifted is difficult and choosing which acts to allow is fundamental to ensuring they are viable because of social distancing, she said.
Ms Coffer said under these circumstances a musical performance, which would normally seat 165 people, could accommodate a maximum of 65, and that is dependent on the type of bookings that are made.
She added: “If you have a lot of people that are buying tickets as singles it knocks out a whole lot of other seats around it.”
Speaking about the first cinema screening at The Witham this autumn, she said: “We were sold out, but we were sold out with 35 seats. We couldn’t have sold anymore because of social distancing.
“So, it is very challenging for us going forward.”
The café was reopened in August despite the casual staff being laid off, and to ensure social distancing The Witham’s gallery was emptied to accommodate overflow café customers. The Witham closed again last Thursday after the latest restrictions were imposed although a takeaway cafe is running.
It came just as the arts centre was recovering.
Ms Coffer said the new arrangements at the cafe had been “working extremely well” with people saying “they feel safe because it is very clearly socially distanced”.
Ms Coffer added: “It would not have been possible without the support of volunteers, because employing more staff would have made it unviable.”
She added that the cafe is currently “washing its face”.
Several community groups had also returned to The Witham such as ManHealth and yoga pilates. Projects run by The Witham were able to continue during the lockdown by going digital, she said.
Ms Coffer said: “There was a fantastic project that we did with The Turrets Youth Theatre. They did a project called the Corona Time Capsule – they basically reported on their experiences of being in lockdown.
Craft fairs were also making a comeback to the centre with serveral planned for November and December. The November events have been cancelled.
Ms Coffer said the centre was fortunate to receive a £50,000 recovery grant from the Arts Council.
She said: “It does take the pressure off.
“It allows us time and the breathing space to really consider what is going to be viable in the New Year because we have basically cancelled the programme for the rest of the year, apart from these one or two things that we have put in.”