Refocussing Glasgow’s Lighthouse after it Hits the Rocks

The news that Glasgow’s Lighthouse has gone into administration is sad but not surprising.  The Centre’s business model is one which worked a few years ago and which the Centre claimed to be a successful and transferable model.   But its dependency on generating substantial, but variable, income both from the Scottish government to deliver particular programmes and also from commercial retail and venue hires exposed it to risk.  And the model appears not to have been able to adapt to reduced income.

The Lighthouse was a bespoke model which has played an important role in promoting design and architecture in Scotland, and in delivering some programmes.  It also breathed life into Charles Rennie MacIntosh’s 1895 Herald Building and is just one of several Lottery funded capital projects where all the stakeholders held hands and took a leap of faith.    Feasibility studies and business plans at the turn of the century were optimistic.  In their  projections for income and attendance as well as the capital and running costs of new buildings, many of these plans turned out to be unrealistic.   Funders and organisations conspired to look only on the bright side, with no license for a more prudent view,  because no one would admit that many of these facilities required more public subsidy, an unpalatable truth which was swept under the carpet –  a microcosm of the high risk and optimistic approach taken in financial services.  High profile projects to hit the rocks early on were the National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield and more recently the Public in West Bromwich has had to remodel and refinance its original plans to survive.

Three factors which have conspired to cause the crash are:

  1. Business Model: With a business model predicated on very little core subsidy, the crew of the Lighthouse would always have to box clever to survive.  This probably would mean a small core operation, to avoid the current situation when reportedly the permanent staff number 57 and cost £1.5m in 2008 according to the last published accounts.
  1. Role Definition: The Lighthouse has also struggled to define and assert its role in the changing context of devolved Scotland.   For the Lighthouse, there are two other recent or recently refined agencies which are closer to Government and which could be seen to occupy territory similar to that stated by the Lighthouse: “To be a leading body for the promotion of architecture, design and the creative industries, locally, nationally and internationally by engaging people of all ages through a creative exhibition, education and business programme.”  Or “the National Centre for Architecture, Design and the City.”   These are the long awaited Creative Scotland and its definition as “the national public body for the arts and culture embracing the creative industries” and the refocused Architecture and Design Scotland, ‘the national design champion’.
  1. Building block: The Lighthouse solved the problem of how to find a use for a building important to Glasgow’s and Scotland’s architectural heritage and presumably appeared the best option when an appraisal was undertaken.  But at around £.5m in the costs of running the venue before any activity, this could be the final nail in the coffin.

Although the situation is grave, there is light at the end of the tunnel.  People care about the Lighthouse and value its core activities and several are offering suggestions as to its future.  Culture Minister Mike Russell has stated in today’s Herald

The Scottish Government will enter into constructive discussions with the administrator and with Glasgow City Council to find a way to take forward the many good things that The Lighthouse has achieved and to ensure that it and its talented staff have a continuing influence on the quality of architecture and design in Scotland

But when the phoenix rises, it needs to be 21st century cultural organisation which has a clear role and mission complementary to others and with a business model which is able to adapt to our fast moving world.

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