'Save The Galleon' Bar owner Stephen Pierre fires shots at Arts Council England after missing out on cash needed to stay afloat
Legendary musician and pianist Jools Holland once described Blackpool’s Galleon Bar as the “best dressed music bar in the UK” so taken he was with the culture of the quirky, vibrant venue.
But now the bar, the history of which hails back to the 1950s and has supported grassroots musicians of all genres in its current location – Abingdon Street in the town centre – for more than a decade, is under threat.
Yet to reopen since shutting the doors for the second lockdown in October, and with restrictions having a profound impact on trading last summer, the task of rebuilding has left professional musician and owner Stephen Pierre with a mountain to climb.
He had hoped to be supported by the Government’s £400 million Cultural Recovery Fund (CRF), but was instead left with the “unknown” after discovering the Arts Council England, which distributes the money on behalf of the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS), had rejected his bid for a much-needed £60,000.
Dejected, Stephen vowed to seek “the truth” behind the failed bid after a number of other resort venues secured hundreds of thousands of pounds. Some £4.5m has been handed out across Lancashire following a second round of funding.
Stephen, who also founded the resort’s annual jazz and blues festival, said that, while he did not want to disrespect other firms, he “found it difficult to understand or justify” why the Galleon, which has eight workers still on furlough, missed out.
The 49-year-old, who lives in London, said: “When we entered the first lockdown last spring, the first priority was to ensure the bar was ‘match fit’ and in a strong position to withhold the closure and protect my staff.
“It meant for the brief spell in the summer we were able to balance the books. It was okay but not fantastic in the circumstances, seeing as our wage bill was much higher. But it meant that, at that time, we were in position where I felt the first round of funding should be reserved for those that most needed it. To that end, I didn’t apply.
“What I wasn’t to know was that a few weeks later we’d be smacked with a cricket bat on the announcement of the 10pm curfew and subject to serving food.
“The Galleon has always made 70 per cent of its profit post 10pm. We have a 4am license.
“We also don’t have a kitchen – we were snookered.
“Blackpool Council had been doing a sterling job in supporting us through that time. It was all hands on deck with suggestions and ideas but with no outdoor space, the decision had to be made to close.
“I had a contingency of £10,000, all my own funds.
“So after an initial chat with the Arts Council I was told to subscribe and wait for the second round of funding that would be released.
“It is a 48-page generic document, which in itself presents a difficulty for the multitude of businesses that apply, but I filled it all in, providing all the evidence in support of the detail to the very best of our ability.
“The money – around £60,000 – was as a working capital contingency and it was in good faith.
“I knew the fund had been swamped in applications and difficult decisions had to be made. I don’t doubt it. But to hear we would get nothing when other venues on our doorstep did, well, it hurts.
“I don’t want to disrespect colleagues and people I’ve worked with and supported but it just seems so unjust.”
Stephen officially complained – and was told the bar had not met the Arts Council’s ‘cultural significance’ criteria.
Specifically, it referred to three elements: ‘supporting cultural operation’, ‘adaptable plans’, and ‘future viability and sustainability’.
The application required in-depth detail on the current status of the business, a programme of cultural activities planned for the summer, a breakdown of consumer behaviours during the period, estimated costs, and how businesses had minimised the gap between income and expenditure in the in-between.
It also asked for a detailed plans in response to potential ongoing changes and measures in place to allow organisations to react to and mitigate risk, and their effectiveness.
Stephen said that, with 30 years of business experience and knowledge of grant applications, he had given his “best estimates” and, despite the “challenging” form, had supplied a wealth of evidence in support of his request.
He added: “I’m thrilled Blackpool has been recognised and other venues have got some reassurance and contingency, but I just can’t fathom how those applications would have been substantially more than ours in the circumstances.
“I’ve asked them that very question.
“The Galleon has a long history, has earned considerable credibility and favour within the town, but has got absolutely nothing. Lets face it, I’m now struggling, as many of us are.
“It’s lives and businesses being ruined.
“Do I throw in the towel? No, I’m not giving up on Blackpool. It’s a kick in the teeth but I’m going to fight it respectfully in the right way.”
Stephen has won support from the Conservative MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, Paul Maynard; and the Tory opposition leader at Blackpool Council, Tony Williams.
Both have approached the Arts Council to ask them to reconsider.
Stephen has also submitted a proposal to the public body, which operates under the DCMS, for a discretionary grant, but has yet to receive a response.
Responding to his complaint, the Arts Council told Stephen: “When considering your application against these prompts, our decision-makers have been unable to conclude that the information provided satisfied these requirements in a way that made your application fundable.
“Though we are unable to revisit this decision at your request, we are sometimes able to review a decision if there is evidence of maladministration in the decision-making process.
“As a final point, I just wanted to acknowledge your point that the disappointment of this decision will be emphasised by the fact other organisations are being offered support.
“I can keenly understand how this difference may feel unfair, or that it was a mistake for us to fund other applications and not yours.
“Though I can acknowledge such feelings, I am afraid we are unable to comment on another application or provide details regarding how other organisations met the required criteria.”
The Arts Council told the Gazette: “While the Culture Recovery Fund is the biggest one-off investment in culture in the nation’s history, the crisis is unprecedented and we regret that not every organisation can be helped at this time. Rightly, the criteria to be awarded a grant are rigorous, but we have been able to support every applicant that met all the criteria.
“We understand that organisations that were unsuccessful will be disappointed and we have published resources both for organisations and individuals, which include alternative sources of support.
“We remain committed to doing all we can to care for the people and organisations that make up this country’s amazing cultural ecology, who do so much to serve communities in towns, villages, and cities across the country.”