Blogpost: The Cost of Doing Business- a year at The Holbeck

We moved into The Holbeck in January 2019: in a glorious act of community leadership the club had been run by volunteers (who now make up the club committee- basically a board) for a number of years but they were growing tired and the club owed a good deal of money. You can read about the details of all that and the partnership we formed with the club here.

In the year we’ve been based at and managed The Holbeck we have renovated much of the building, bringing all the rooms back into regular use. We discovered how much money the club owed and settled all debts and returned the deeds to the members (it turns out metaphorically rather than literally because no one knows where they actually are but that doesn’t matter legally thankfully). We have hosted dozens of personal events; Ghanian funerals, naming ceremonies, first holy communion celebrations. And welcomed hundreds of participants in community events; fundraisers and gatherings, discussions and ceremonies. We have hosted a visiting public professional performance every week, produced new cabarets and children work and facilitated dozens of other artists with rehearsal space and dormitory rooms. We ran over 30 Cultural Community College courses out of the club. We are now the regular arts provision for large chunks of South Leeds who realistically cannot either physically or financially reach the majority of the city centre provision except by special invitation.  Our audience is diverse and representative of our immediate local community.

We host a care leaver dinner on a Thursday that is attended by 25 odd young people who literally have no where else to go. Kidz Klub weekly gathering that helps dozens of young kids be creative and safe. And Leeds Dads every month who are the most brilliant organisation at helping parents of pre-school children. We’re a polling station.

We’ve done all of this maintaining Pay What You Decide on all events and activities. (Except the beer, don’t be a smart arse). The club is thriving, open 3 sessions a day 7 days a week.

We’ve done all of this within the funding arrangements with the Arts Council and the city council and other funders that we had before we ever knew we wanted to run the oldest working men’s club as an arts, social and community space on a Pay What You Decide basis.

As a company we’ve never been more useful. We’ve never spent our funding more efficiently to reach as many people. We’ve never taught as many people, entertained as diverse an audience, welcomed as many people who would be welcome nowhere else.

We are connected. And- most of the time, on a good day- we are relevant.

We are now a part of and nourished by a network of local and micro charities and volunteer organisations all slogging away at being kind and useful in Holbeck. A group of people a million miles away from the Punch and Judy national political world but political nonetheless, grafting away at finding ways of making people’s lives survivable, hopeful and sometimes pleasant and glorious.

And, the same group of 5 Slung Low staff, have done all that whilst still making original work of scale on a national and international basis.

How we’ve done this is a mixture of graft, funding, good luck and the fact that we’ve operated under a clear, stated number of principles.

We guarantee the club against loss and commit our resources to ensure it thrives. At the end of the financial year we make the books back up to zero (and then pay £3,000 in additional rent so a programme of club social activity can continue to be funded) There is absolutely no commercial business model for a club/pub like this in this place to be profitable without changes to those things that the members hold dear (tone, price, opening hours). So this promise of guarantee against loss secures the financial future of the club, under member ownership. This is increasingly rare in our country: most members clubs aren’t member owned. Given the amount of money invested by Slung Low and the amount of management time it takes up there are other ways we could have proceeded: we explored them all (indeed the club board offered us a cut of any future profits which we rejected). But it wouldn’t have remained a purely members owned club, it would have been a take-over: which is not best practice in our work. But it is easier practice and would have simplified the variety and number of often opposing stake holders that we currently manage.

We work the building hard. We fill the place often. We sold 25% more beer than the previous year. But we pay people properly to work here. The annual cash deficit is substantial (£25k). But is still less than the rent we were paying at the HUB. It’s the definition of a win win as long as everyone assumes good faith. Of course the non-financial cost to us at Slung Low is substantial- the time it takes to manage the space, the cellar, the accounts, the committee, the community groups etc etc is 1.5 people a week. That’s the cost of our first principle.

We say yes to everything. If the space is available we will facilitate your event; fundraiser for the lad round the corner who got burgled and wasn’t insured, yes: jazz night, yes: LGBQT+ safe space cabaret, yes: Austrian Ghanian Leeds Society (absolutely is a thing), yes: public debate about the nature of sex work in the area, yes: and the most difficult, Majorette Award Ceremonies (THE HORROR OF THE CARPET AFTER!), yes. We say yes to anything unless it’s overtly commercial and dull (e.g. night club events we wouldn’t allow) but everything else we say yes to. The sheer diversity that the upstairs room gets to see on an average weekend from cooking classes, to political speeches, to African funerals, to experimental theatre is extraordinary.  Would we have let a Brexit party fundraiser have the room upstairs? I don’t know they never asked. This is something that is brought up a lot by senior members of the club who have different political views to the ones they think I have. The Brexit party should get themselves organised and test us: that would show us eh.

Regardless I do know that we’ve supported specific theatre shows requested by members that aren’t to our taste nor our world view and we have a Christian group regularly pray here (a number sit on the club board) whose reading of the bible and lived Christianity is not mine but I’d like to think we host them and service their needs with the same determined practicality that we do anyone else.

Everyone gets what they want but doesn’t get to stop anyone else getting what they want. Want the bar to be like it was ten years ago, the beer to basically be the same price and the carpet not to have changed? Done. Don’t want the care leavers to use the space when nothing else is happening? Can’t help you there, everyone is welcome. Members, non-members, drinkers, non-drinkers. Everyone gets what they want as long as the room is free in the diary.

“You shouldn’t let those African lads upstairs”
“It’s okay, I’m across it.”
“I’m not being racist.”
“It’s just that they don’t drink anything, we’ll not make any money from them.”
“I don’t care.”
“And they don’t clean up their food, they leave it on the carpet.”
“That room has every type of person, race and creed up there in any given month and what I know to be absolute true is that there isn’t a man jack of you in South Leeds who can get food from their plate to their mouth without throwing most of it on the bloody floor. If I only let people up there who didn’t leave sausage rolls, chicken wings, crisps and Bombay chuffing mix on the floor it would be permanently empty.”
“You’ll regret it.”
“Je ne regrette rien cupcake.”

Complete financial transparency. Everyone who works behind the bar gets the living wage (£9.30 as of 1st Jan) everyone who works for Slung Low gets the average wage of the nation (£28,080). What we spend on events from either our Arts Council or Paul Hamlyn grants we are open about. Art in this country is subsidised and despite their increasingly expensive tickets that might make you think otherwise if you didn’t know the work at your big local theatre is subsidised- often to the tune of millions. I see no reason why the art and culture of Holbeck isn’t subsidised to the same extent as the art and culture of those who can afford £35 tickets to watch Twelfth Night in the city centre. When we put on a cabaret the artists are the finest we can find, we put on a proper show for our audience. It isn’t a chancer with a karaoke machine, it’s Jamie Fletcher and her band with Divina De Campo, or Eggs Collective, or House of Ghetto or School of Night. We don’t have artists we ask to do our gig at the RSC and artists we ask to do the club, or teach at the college. They are all the same. And they all get (worked out per day) the same as the rest of us- £108 a day.

Most people at the club think we’re paid too much and pay too much to others: it comes up a lot. They still enjoy the shows and the classes and the cabarets but still, they think they cost too much to put on. We are very lucky with our local councillors who are good people very supportive of what we are doing here. One of them turned to me recently and said- you are loaded you lot. And of course in comparison to the local volunteer organisations in Holbeck we absolutely are well funded. In comparison to the cultural portfolio, to our impact on the national arts scene we are not. But you rightly don’t care about that when you are working out where your little pot of local money goes. This is important: the disconnect between the theatre industry values and costs and the communities we serve (and those that we want more of our arts organisations to serve) grows larger and a lack of clarity and transparency about money is one of the contributing factors.

Useful and Kind.  When we moved in this become our cry. Everything we have is yours if you have need of it, from a wood to a van, to our bar to the kit. And when in doubt, when caught in the cross fire between two opposing forces, we choose the kindest path. And we are as hard in then holding course as we have to be. We’ve discovered that kindness needs protecting- sometimes literally by standing in the doorway- and those are the days you put your big boys pants on.

By any of our hopes and ambition, by any measure (one of our Arts Council KPI was to increase the number of people voting in The Holbeck- we’re a polling station- a target we absolutely smashed setting a record for the venue) we have succeeded. People learnt stuff. Culture was shared. Space was held. Communities were served.

So far so traditional blog bragging.We’ve also never been so tired. And so lacking in generosity at times. And so in need of support from funders. And feel so perilous in our position within the industry.

And if the likes of Slung Low can’t find the confidence to unpick the failings and successes to try and find a lesson to be learnt then no one can- we are privileged in our combination of security and independence in this incredibly disjointed sector. After one year and having spent that year making the very difficult work, now is the time to honestly evaluate whether continuing to make it work is where we put our energy over the coming years. Is the price of doing business too high?

In the summer there was a group of kids who had been identified by the council as at risk of returning to school after the summer holiday suffering from malnutrition. There was the money to feed them. And to provide a health activity and arts programme. But no where for it be hosted. Of course we said yes. For five weeks kids got fed. Kids that would not have got fed did. The kids got fed.

Now those of you who do this for a living know that actually something else happened too. Those kids came into the building, became comfortable, over five weeks got really comfortable. We programmed some brilliant kids work (thanks Unlimited Theatre)- you know who came to see it? Their first ever theatre show. They wouldn’t have come otherwise.

And the parents of those kids had to come and pick their kids up from the club and then they were across the threshold and waiting for them were some of the team with a cup of tea and a brochure for the cultural community college and a quiet, Can I Show You Something?

And people who you would never ever be able to reach were there, in the room, being told about something that it turned out they really wanted. We found a way to be relevant to those that we would never have been able to reach otherwise.

And in the most unpleasant parts of this job, in the hours of hoovering and bullshit, of meetings with board members who wear England I Want My Country Back badges like it’s a winning argument, of standing in the middle of a community that is angry and divided and aggressive I often think, sometimes I even say, the kids got fed. Because we’re here. The kids got fed. Whatever else I say here in this blog, the kids got fed.

But it comes at a cost.

In the last 12 months I have seen my team and dear friends bullied to the point of considering quitting by so many whose club membership affords them seeming authority but no responsibility; dealt with a dozen or more annoying petty crimes and vandalism sometimes by those using the space in one way or another; unravelled inherited accounts that revealed hidden debts and thefts; firmly escorted angry red faced cocaine fuelled topless idiots out of the club; had abuse screamed in my face in front of my audience in response to a local council initiative around sex workers, and on at least two occasions reached in fear and need for the 10lb sledge hammer I call Bertha. These moments are horrible, there is no glory or satisfaction in them. But they are the cost of doing the thing we promised to do in the place and in the way we promised to do it. I don’t believe they are, we’ve questioned this as honestly as we can, the symptoms of failure or a failure of strategy: indeed many of them indicate that some thing is working- the stranglehold of gate keepers always breaks with a scream and gate keepers come in all shapes and sizes, and some even with their tops off.

In the face of all that, saying The Kids Got Fed is a part of my resilience. A necessary motto in the moments when a different job, more time at home, more pay for less shit (or at least a different type of shit), a different place in life seems attractive.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I’m in any way special, or no more than we all are. Most folk reading this are doing something difficult with their lives: Fun Palacing, CPPs, theatre companies working in the edges of things, and so on. These doubts and questionings are normal in any one who is determined to do that which is difficult, to ignore the easier and less interesting path that is available to us all. And emotional and moral resilience isn’t a magic trick- it’s understanding how to manage yourself and the situation to achieve what you must. And The Kids Got Fed is part of my resilience.

One of our funders (and a really good one who I have a lot of time for so don’t be at it) said to me not so long ago- when you talk about feeding kids before anything else we don’t really know what to do with you. And at first I want to scream because a. THE KIDS GOT FED and b. We all know what feeding the kids mean in terms of our developing relevance.And of course we don’t all know that.  We still exist in a system evaluated by the number of stars, the increase in box office, the amount of additional beers or £9 fish finger sandwiches you can sell. And there’s only so much money to go round, so- whatever our artistic breeding would wish otherwise- we are in competition: with each other, with other regions, with other art forms, with an ever increasing demand and an ever decreasing pot.

When we moved into the Holbeck the upstairs rooms weren’t accessible. This is unacceptable. We spent what was left of our savings after bailing out the club on a stair lift. It isn’t a solution but it was helpful with some of our participants. We knew we would have to raise the money (the lift was originally £30k but the total costs are over £100k) to make it accessible at its most basic level.

It is one of the wonders of the modern world how no one in a position of authority hadn’t noticed the lack of a lift or ramps in the ten years since the legislation was brought in that stated that social clubs had to be accessible but there it is and now it is our responsibility not because we have the money but because we have the energy to care about this: and some days it feels like we’re the only ones who do.

In 2019 we didn’t get a small capital funding from the arts council that we spent several thousand pounds having experts work on with us on (money very kindly donated by internet friends of the company earlier in the year): too many bids not enough money. Which is fair enough and I like the Arts Council even when they don’t give me money because I’ve spent some energy imagining the alternative to the Arts Council. I like the Arts Council plenty.

But when we dug in deeper to the failure it was also, in part, because the application failed to demonstrate how this additional capital funding would allow us to increase our income, or our financial security. How a lift to the first floor of the event’s room in the oldest working men’s club in Britain which operates a Pay What You Decide cultural programme in one of the poorest communities in the city, in the country, how that lift would increase our revenue. It won’t. It can’t.

And whilst I know that Producer Joanna will beaver away and find something to make it all make sense and we’ll resubmit and the evidence will be there we all know its utter nonsense.

Here is what it will do though.

Gaynor is a regular participant in our performance programme. She has a degenerative illness that currently sees her entirely reliant on her large electric wheelchair, and personal care. Speech is possible still but difficult at times. She’s brilliant. She comes to all the performance sessions our James ran. She’s going to be in our short film that we film in January.

She can’t go upstairs. She couldn’t see the cabarets we programmed or the performances we invited to the club. Whilst we moved large sections of our participatory programme to a nearby, not ideal but accessible, room we can’t always do that if we have more than 50 people and so she misses out.

She misses out.

We’ll apply again, we’ll find the money, we’ll get the lift in a year or two.

Gaynor will miss out.

I have members of the Slung Low theatre professional board who can’t come to board meetings if we have them in the most important parts of the building. Not to mention having a stage which is inaccessible to performers in wheelchairs. I don’t think that is anyone’s responsibility but mine. Before I say anything else be absolutely clear that this is my responsibility first and foremost. You are what you do, and currently I fail to welcome those with access issues to the performance programme at the club. And there isn’t a week when that isn’t clear and when we don’t renew our efforts to resolve it. It is the thing amongst all else that I think on.

And it undermines our campaign here in Holbeck of belligerent generosity and sharing to all parts of our society. It makes us hypocrites in the eyes of those who hope we don’t succeed.

If we are serious about relevance, If we are serious about shifting the nature of culture in our nation, about transforming the connections between all our nation and our culture well then there are some hard decisions to be had. Because basing our sector around quasi commercial outfits with pump priming attitudes to public subsidy and boards full of people who have done incredibly well out of the current political, financial and cultural systems in our society is not the strategy we need to  bring about the change we hope for. And have no doubt, we are in competition, if not always for funds, then always for the definition in the public discourse of what arts and the culture are for, who they are for, what they are at their core.

If our collective mission is for better relevance in every part of society then we must accept we are asking people to go and do what we have failed as a sector to do before and that this will be difficult- we haven’t done it before because it was more difficult than the things we were doing- that evaluating these new projects and missions will require new criteria- the market has failed those projects in the past and using the market’s values of income and financial resilience to evaluate them is an act of philosophical stupidity- and we are going to need new ways of supporting those that do this work, and continue to do this work for lets be honest there are some heroes who have been hard at it for decades long before me and mine came along: and we’re all stood on the shoulders of giants. Relevance comes at a cost and long before the financial cost is the cost it must have on our long held values and assumptions about what is ‘good’, what is important, what is to be treasured, and what success looks like. And what we are going to fund, and by how much.
I went on some pretty hefty leadership training this year and, amongst much else, it highlighted the importance of responsibility. You are what you do and if you are a leader you are what your team does, and the responsibility for that team is yours. That in striving for relevance, in placing ourselves in direct service to a large group of people not used to that level of attention a number of leadership challenges arose that I never thought I would have to face.

How do you properly and appropriately manage and develop your young asian Muslim assistant producer when you’ve a board member who wears a badge that says “England! I want my country back”? How do you support your young female business partner in an environment where the sense of members ownership allows behaviour and aggression that would absolutely not be allowed in a normal work-place? What is an appropriate response? How much listening is care and how much is cowardice? At what point is puffing yourself up to your full height putting on your big boy voice and telling everyone, enough, is leadership in a difficult environment and how much is machismo that has beset nearly every white straight middle aged arts leader I’ve ever met?

After nearly 20 years of making work in difficult environments (I started with youth offenders so I’ve not wandered in from the mainstream) and listening and caring and gently manouvering people through difficult things to find myself telling people that they will absolutely be quiet now is a failure I had hoped to escape. But then being the person who stands silently in a room he’s responsible for whilst men talk out-loud and unchecked about murdering sex workers is a greater failure. There is no morally pure road to walk, only the choice between two far from ideal options. But failure to make a decision is the worst of all routes.

I understand, have come to understand, that calling a place home is a moral responsibility. A promise writ large, beyond the details of the contract we made with the club’s management committee. We are of this place, we are in service to it. We are Holbeck’s very own theatre company.

I think a lot less about financial resilience of publicly subsidised organisations and lot more about Gaynor. We’re going to have spend a lot less time trying to come up with a model that can be rolled out at scale and find the courage to imagine what the spine of our arts sector looks like if we base it not on century old institutions slowly evolving into relevance but the understanding that a Stella, or a Javaad, or a Jo, or a Tobi, or a David, or a Joanna in a community, really connected, working with, saying yes, given enough money to get something done, fighting hand to hand responding in the moment with kindness, creativity, and energy has the potential to transform that community’s relationship with culture more profoundly than a dozen well pamphleted national programmes of bleurgh. And change enough communities you can change the nation: that’s the prize here, changing how the nation sees culture and the arts, what is it, who is it for, how does it work.

But it’s so much harder work than what we were doing before. And the courage it takes from all of us is greater.

This year I’ve thought about quitting my job before in a way that I never have before. In the face of the demands of actually being attentive to a huge array of people and communities, of attempting to hold a space for all and not just what we’re interested in, of being relevant in a real, day to day, can you do this now kind of a way.

This isn’t a complaint. It is the cost of doing the thing we said we’d do. The cost not only of keeping our promise, but also of fulfilling our potential. You demonstrate your commitment by standing in the rain and you will get wet. No one ever promised that it would be easy, just that doing anything else wasn’t worthy of our energy.

Doing this has made us harder. I can see it in my Slung Low team: they all didn’t make it to the end of the year (it sounds like we killed someone, we didn’t, James moved on) and that’s something that I have to take seriously- this isn’t an easy job but we’re helping no one if we all quit.

Any Artistic Director of a building- even the most rarified one- will tell you that the negative voices are always the loudest. So, recognising we were spending a majority of our time on the minority of people complaining, we started to collate the testimonials that people send you not realising that they are some days the very thing you need to keep trucking.

One said “Thank God you came to The Holbeck”

Well the big man can take the credit but really thank ProducerJoanna, thank the Arts Council of England, thank a company wage policy, thank the inspiration of Joan Littlewood, and the support of our theatre community on the internet and thank a team of 4 determinedly smashing away at making new things grow in an old place. It’s them and those that got us here. That got us to the end of the first year. And it will be a cherishing of them and those that see us to another one. And another one. And another one. And another.

Because remember friends, the kids got fed.


Brett Chapman’s documentary Standing in the Rain which follows the first 3 months of us moving into the club is here.

It was shown at this year’s Leeds International film Festival to great acclaim. We think Brett has made a great and honest film. Many thanks to him and the members who took part.