Shire of Augusta-Margaret council inks deal on Arts Margaret River’s Heart management deal

Warren HatelyAugusta Margaret River Times
The Margaret River Heart needs urgent safety upgrades.
Camera IconThe Margaret River Heart needs urgent safety upgrades. Credit: Warren Hately/Augusta-Margaret River Times

Councillors have signed off on the new deal for Arts Margaret River to run the Margaret River Heart.

A snap special council meeting on Wednesday saw six members unanimously back the arrangement, brokered in recent months since the Shire of Augusta-Margaret River first revealed its change of Heart.

In August, the Shire forecast an initial annual cost to ratepayers in the new deal of $1.38 million, and while that figure was confirmed this week, it includes a $225,000 per year sweetener for Arts Margaret River for program development.

The agreement will see the Shire continue to staff technical services for the building, while volunteers and the Arts Margaret River team will be in charge of programming.

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The move follows a consultants’ report called by councillors a year ago to probe how the Heart was tracking.

The $40,000 report by Monica Kane and June Moorhouse revealed the venue had failed to follow national industry benchmarks, didn’t offer good value for money, caused widespread angst in the arts community for its grants program, cost to hire, and in alienating users.

Deputy Shire president Julia Meldrum said the review followed through on the council’s initial commitment back when the Heart first opened to give it a couple of years to establish true running costs.

But the review, which found widespread problems and user antipathy towards the Heart, only bolstered the decision to bring the arts group back into the building they were booted from when the Shire first announced it would take management in-house.

“Council will remain diligent financially to make sure we are really getting bang for our buck at the building next door,” Cr Meldrum said.

Since August, the Times has asked the Shire for a breakdown of staff numbers in the wake of the review, with its community planning and development team restructured to incorporate some of the employees recruited for the Heart’s marketing department.

While that breakdown wasn’t forthcoming, this week’s report said there was a reduction in 1.74 full-time equivalent positions, leaving the Shire’s workforce contribution at 4.45FTE.

The Times understands that includes the redundancy of Queensland star-hire general manager Nicky Hansen, with the Shire since moving to recruit a new arts and culture manager to act as the interface between Arts Margaret River and its local government sponsors.

On Wednesday, Cr Ian Earl acknowledged user feedback, but sheeted the bulk of the blame on COVID-19.

“It had a serious impact on the operation,” he said.

“I look forward to seeing this become a bigger and better operation.

“Now we just need to get it loved by the community.”

While the consultants also acknowledged COVID-19’s disruption, overwhelmingly it found local theatre and community groups were financially squeezed out of the venue, it lacked a community feel, staff costs including a marketing team had grown swiftly during the past three years, and the site remained closed on weekends unless for ticketed events.

The consultants uncovered “a major sense of alienation of the community from the Heart, and by extension from the Shire” and described it as “a continuing political tension”.

A big focus of the feedback was from centre users and community groups who voiced frustration at costs, poor communication, lack of strong connections to community groups, lack of support for users and grant applicants, and the loss of community events such as Margaret River Theatre Group shows and dance presentations.

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