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Long read: A shrinking culture capital

With the closure of Event Cinema on Courtney Place, Wellington has lost another 2000 seats for culture focused events. Lindsay Shelton of Wellington.scoop examines the contradiction between WREDA’s “culture capital” branding and the alarming loss of culture-focussed venues in the city.

Wellington may claim to be the culture capital – as WREDA has branded us – but the city is now short of 6000 seats for its culture-focussed events.

Photo: Russell Street / Flickr

We’ve been 2000 seats short since 2013 when our magnificent 114-year-old Town Hall was closed for strengthening – work which has not yet begun after a five-year closure. The city council first announced that work would start in 2016. Then it revised the date to 2017. Then it gave us a third start date – work would begin, it said, before the end of last year. The completion date, if work had started at that time, was to have been 2021. Eight years of closure for one of the city’s greatest public buildings is hard to align with claims about our city’s cultural values.

Last year we lost 2000 more seats, when the beautiful St James Theatre (106 years old) was closed for strengthening. The work was supposed to be finished in 12 months, but it now won’t be completed till the end of next year, which is probably an optimistic forecast.

The St James Theatre – closed until the end of the year. Photo: Bruce Staples

It’s great that the work is being done, but the closure means that next year’s Festival of the Arts won’t have one of its major venues – which should be of concern to any culturally-minded bureaucrat when one third of the festival’s total ticket sales are for events at the St James.

Then last week – out of the blue – Wellington lost 2000 more seats, in the area of popular culture, with the sudden closure of the ten cinemas in the Reading Courtenay complex – which the owners said had been deemed by engineers, in a draft report, to be a seismic risk. It was a reminder that the building had also been closed after the 2016 earthquake till its adjacent carpark was demolished, when a
city council spokesperson said that nine of the car park’s 11 support columns had structurally failed in the quake. “The building’s knackered,” he told us. Let’s wait and hope to be told that the problems discovered in the main structure are not so severe.

And let’s not forget the closure of the Paramount Theatre 18 months ago, after a hundred years when it had been active 365 days of the year for cultural events. What a loss. It’s been stripped of its seats and projection equipment and has been empty ever since. There are no apparent plans for the empty space to be used …. for anything. The landlords gave plenty of notice of their intention to close it and to evict the cinema operator – which gave the city council plenty of time to intervene, negotiate and persuade. But such activities didn’t seem to be part of its action plan, even for culture.

The Paramount’s greatest importance to the city’s cultural life was that it was the cinema where Wellington’s annual film festival began in 1972; when the festival moved its main home to the Embassy, the Paramount remained its second most important venue. This was however of no consequence to the council – which forgot about cultural values when it approved a resource consent to convert the building into a boutique hotel. (A plan with no cultural relevance, but a plan which never eventuated.)

The Embassy Theatre. Photo: Phillip Capper / Flickr

After the Paramount was shut down, the film festival moved some of its screenings into several of the cinemas at Readings, so last week’s closure will be a big concern for its 47th annual programme this year.

And I forgot to add the 400 Paramount seats to the total of seats that have been lost by the cultural capital. Make that a total of 6400 seats that we’ve lost….

In the meantime, have you noticed that this is Wellington’s Decade of Culture? It’s all there in the latest ten year plan. Cultural events being supported by the city council include Wellington On A Plate – which is surely stretching the definition of culture just a bit. But of course there’s no shortage of seats in the cultural capital’s eating places.

Do you have any thoughts on this? If you’d like to participate in the discussion, follow this link to the comment section on Wellington.scoop.