Wales Millennium Centre's Chief Executive Accused of 'Dictatorial' Management Style
Monday, March 28, 2005
Western Mail [Cardiff]
By Sion Barry
WMC chief executive Judith Isherwood came out fighting yesterday after she was attacked for allegedly running Wales' premiere arts centre like a dictator. She was accused of creating a 'culture of fear' at the newly-opened arts venue on Cardiff Bay.
Accusations of management infighting and bullying at the Wales Millennium Centre were reported yesterday, and the blame for poor ticket sales was laid at her door.
In a Sunday Times article, an unnamed board member of the centre said staff were 'very, very unhappy', while another source said her management style was 'dictatorial' and staff were 'intimidated by her style'.
But Ms. Isherwood hit back at the attack, saying the anonymous nature of the remarks represented 'cowardice'. The Australian said the WMC has already achieved more than a third of its planned ticket sales for 2005.
Defending her management approach, she stressed that any concerns should be raised through the appropriate channel ó whether at board meetings or directly through her or the centre's chairman, Sir David Rowe-Beddoe.
The artistic venue's challenging business plan forecasts that for it to break even this year, it will need to sell between 70ñ75% of total seating capacity. But the report claimed that less than 40% of the tickets for its shows in the main auditorium had been sold.
Ms. Isherwood confirmed that some shows, including Cirque Eloize's production of Rain, had not achieved that target, while some of the weekday matinee performances had been poorly attended ó some as low as 12%.
'We have only been running for four months, which is too early to give a clear indication of our performance. You have to take a global picture. For 2005 the plan is to sell 350,000 tickets, and for the first three months we have reached 135,000, which is quite heartening,' said Ms. Isherwood.
'We are aware that we face a challenging task, but the programme in place we believe has given us the best possible shot of achieving it.'
Ms. Isherwood said she was still enthused by her role and, board permitting, would welcome the challenge of seeing the £104 million centre through its critical period of the next three to five years.
But she admitted some shows had failed to meet expectations. 'Cirque Eloize got off to a slow start, but achieved around 40% capacity. However, Sleeping Beauty on Ice achieved box office targets. And Welsh National Opera, I believe, exceeded their box office expectations, with most of their performances sold out.'
But she admitted that she was personally disappointed at the number of non-Welsh theatre goers being attracted. 'To date 90% have come from South Wales, which is fantastic that there is such a great deal of interest locally. However, I would personally like to see the number of theatre-goers from further afield increasing to around 30%.'
Ms. Isherwood declined to give the percentage of non-Welsh theatre-goers identified in the business plan, or the projected break-even revenue figure.
However, she said that improving the rate was to a degree dependent upon the successof wider marketing campaigns for Cardiff and Wales. 'The winning of the Grand Slam in rugby will have a positive impact in raising the profile of Wales, which is something we hope to reap the benefits from.' And she added that she has the support of her board and chairman Sir David Rowe-Beddoe.
The Australian revealed that at the last board meeting (which is convened every six weeks) and at previous ones, no-one had criticised her management style.
Referring to the comments from the unnamed board members in the Sunday Times, she added, 'If these comments are correct I believe the board member has taken a cowardly approach.
'If anyone has concerns, there are appropriate mechanisms to raise them, through myself or the chairman.' As for her management style she said, 'I would describe it as strong and supportive, rather than tough. The staff are 110% committed to making this project a success.'
The management and board are currently considering the centre's programme for the second half of the year. Welsh Culture Minister Alun Pugh said yesterday, 'To call into question the long-term future of the Wales Millennium Centre, a couple of weeks after it opened its doors to critical acclaim, is absurd.
'Some shows of differing kinds, from La traviata to Max Boyce, have sold out, while others have not. 'The board has certainly got a challenging business plan, but the members carry the full support of the Welsh Assembly Government.
'The Wales Millennium Centre has made no approach for funding beyond the agreed funding contained in the business plan (£750,000 a year).'
Speaking about the accusations on Ms. Isherwood's managerial style, he added, 'I have no knowledge of this. Judith is an employee of the board. I have met the chairman of the board formally on a number of occasions and this is not something that he has raised with me.'
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