Sunday, 28 December 2014

Unravelling the mystery of tapestry finances

The £40,000 report commissioned by Scottish Borders Council from Jura Consultants - a document which apparently persuaded 20 elected councillors to spend millions of pounds on a shiny new centre at Tweedbank to accommodate The Great Tapestry of Scotland - includes comparisons between our expensive venture and other tapestry galleries elsewhere in the United Kingdom and beyond.

But while the Jura report claims to "provide a summary of attractions which bear similarities to the proposed vision of the Great Tapestry of Scotland" no mention is made of the actual balance sheets of these comparable facilities such as The Quaker Tapestry Exhibition Museum in Kendal, Cumbria, or The Knutsford Millennium Tapestry in Chancellor George Osborne's Cheshire constituency.

Perhaps a few extracts from the annual accounts of these long-established tourist lures would have been helpful before a healthy majority of Borders councillors voted for a vast investment of taxpayers' money to pay for a risky venture in the backwater that is Tweedbank. They may or may not have been swayed by Jura's upbeat forecasts of profitability resulting from the hordes (40,000 to 50,000 a year) who we are assured will flock to see the tapestry once the Border Railway is up and running in September 2015.

A few minutes of internet research would have revealed that far from being roaring financial successes, the Kendal and Knutsford centres both lose money despite sizeable grants and donations from both the public and private sectors. But not many of our modern-day elected servants bother to ask questions or ascertain the full facts before sticking their hands up in a "non roll call" vote.

The Quaker Tapestry's latest accounts reveal total income of £221,354 and expenditure of £255,296. The income included grants totalling over £80,000 from 10 organisations including Cumbria County Council, South Lakeland District Council, Kendal Town Council and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. Income from admissions fell from £12,077 in 2012 to just £10,587 in 2013.

The trustees say: "The cost of running the cafe remains a challenge, partly because of the variability of customer numbers. Donations are particularly important to bridge the gap between trading income and expenditure." The catering side of the operation alone lost £6,000 last year.

Is this what happens when the novelty of a new attraction starts to wear off? The Quaker tapestry panels were started in Somerset in 1981, and over 4,000 people in 15 countries were involved in making the 77 embroidered panels tracing the history of the movement from 1652.

Even the Jura report admits: "Challenging economic times have resulted in some financial difficulties [for the Quaker Tapestry Museum]. An annual review emphasises its need to continue to control operating costs, increase earned income and maintain charitable support".

Meanwhile the Knutsford Heritage Centre, which houses another tapestry, has also been recording financial losses in recent years. The 2013/14 accounts reveal income of £35,221 and expenditure of £37,260. The figures include grants of £9,720 and donations of £8,920.Those returns marked an improvement on 2012/13 with income of £27,628 and spending of £41,467.

The Jersey Occupation Tapestry, which took 228 workers 30,000 hours and seven and a half million stitches to complete is not included in the consultants' report. But our local councillors may be interested to know that the Channel Islands attraction only survived a potentially fatal financial illness in 2009 thanks to an £800,000 bail out from the States of Jersey government. The tapestry, part of Jersey's Maritime Museum, had to be closed in the winter months to save money.

It seems the financial outlook for these works of art is, in many cases, wobbly and uncertain. So is there any guarantee the Tweedbank scheme will not struggle for stability, despite Jura's positive predictions? It is to be hoped Borders council taxpayers are not asked to fill the proverbial begging bowl should this new attraction run into choppy fiscal waters!

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