North Shields' Sam Fender art faces removal amid uncertain future of Exchange Theatre

31.03.23 Sam Fender signed mosaic Exchange Credit: Lez Forman
Sam Fender's signed mosaic by local artist Lez Forman was due to be auctioned to raise funds to support homeless people but now faces removal from the Exchange cafe by 17 April, as talks about the community venue's uncertain future continue. Credit: Lez Forman Mosaics

A local artist whose signed mosaic of Sam Fender was due to be auctioned to raise funds to support homeless people now faces its removal as the future of a community theatre in North Shields remains uncertain.

The charity Exchange Theatre, where the mosaic is on display, faced closure after its lease at the Saville Exchange building was awarded to a commercial company.

More than 1,100 people signed a petition against its closure.

Creatives who use the venue as a community hub remain concerned for its future, including artist, Lez Forman.

Mr Forman's signed mosaic of North Shield's singing star, Sam Fender, is currently on display in the Exchange's cafe.

The mosaic was due to be auctioned at the Exchange in June this year but Mr Forman says he has been told he must remove the artwork by 17 April.

Mr Forman said: "The mosaic has been there since last July. It was due to be auctioned through the Exchange this June until the takeover happened.

"Now I find myself in an awkward position as regards as to what to do with the mosaic as I have to vacate it before 17 April."

However, a spokesperson for North Tyneside Council said: "It's important to note that The Exchange is not closing. All staff have been offered to continue their employment and all bookings are being honoured."

Artist, Lez Forman, said: "I find myself in an awkward position as to what to do with the mosaic as I have to vacate it before 17 April." Credit: Lez Forman Mosaics

The petition launched to try to save the organisation has been signed by 1,100 people so far.

It has also called on the leader of North Tyneside Council, Mayor Norma Redfearn, to intervene.

The petition reads: "Your decision at North Tyneside Council to appoint a new leaseholder will evict The Exchange Theatre charity from its home of seven years.

"This is a catastrophic decision that will affect our members' work, and leave the local community at risk of losing a much-loved theatre and community space.

"We are asking you to do the right thing, and ensure that work is not lost during the change of leaseholder; offer The Exchange charity the support they need to find a new venue; ensure that the work produced in The Exchange is done utilising agreed trade union terms.

"We are asking you to Save the Exchange."

The theatre has played host over the years to many well-known North East stars including Robson Green and Lindisfarne.

Actor Tim Healy, who officially opened the venue in 2002, wrote a post on Twitter about his concerns over the Exchange Theatre's future.

In the post he wrote: "Please please sign this. This building is the heart of the community and so important to support."

When the Exchange Theatre announced in March this year it would be lowering the curtain for the final time on 17 April there followed an outpouring of support from the local community.

A statement released on The Exchange Theatre's social media feeds read: "Despite negotiations with the new provider, we regret that we have not been able to come to an agreement where we will be able to continue to use the space to provide an ongoing programme.

"So, it is with sadness that we are preparing to leave the building."

Dominic Bascombe, Equity's regional official for North East, Yorkshire and Humberside, said: "We appreciate that the council is seeking commercial investments, but this should proceed on the basis that a venue offering real cultural value is maintained or at least supported in finding an alternative place, or even better, properly supported to work within a commercial setting.

"The focus of North Tyneside Council seems to be on buildings rather than enhancing the cultural value on offer. This is simply wrong.

"We know that when arts and culture is diminished there is a long- lasting impact on local communities."

Paul Stonebanks of the newly formed company The Exchange 1856 said the venue had an "exciting" future.

The Exchange Theatre, North Shields said: "It is with sadness that we are preparing to leave the building." Credit: Lez Forman Mosaics

Mr Stonebanks said: "I am delighted to be the new custodian of The Exchange in North Shields. The building is so outstanding and unique that for me it’s imperative that it connects in the deepest way possible to the entire community.

"The Exchange will help support businesses, entrepreneurship, theatre, arts, music, fitness, wellbeing, families and communities."

Mr Stonebanks, who is from North Shields, shared on his website that he wants "to contribute to the North Tyneside community and truly loves the idea of bringing people together to socialise, share and learn."

Exchange Manager, Christine Lee said: "The Exchange Theatre has been a wonderful home for creatives, artists and musicians." Credit: Exchange Theatre

The entrepreneur said his latest venture will be a "new family-led business set up to operate and safeguard the future of The Exchange."

He said: "We bid for this contract in good faith and with a true desire to help The Exchange become a fantastic, thriving cultural local asset.

"We worked very hard to explore different ways in which we could work closely with the previous custodians of The Exchange – the Exchange Theatre Charity – to keep them in the building.

"However, despite our best efforts – including the offer of free rent and rates – we could not find a workable solution together."

The Exchange manager Christine Lee, said: "It’s been a difficult time for everyone involved with The Exchange Theatre.

"We recognise that Stonebanks Investments will be operating the building, including the cafe, bar and auditorium, with a different approach and business model.

"Unfortunately, despite many conversations, we cannot see a way that the new commercially-driven operations will be compatible with our charitable structures and objectives."

Ms Lee added: "We remain deeply keen to see local artists, creatives and community groups flourish and have facilitated all existing bookings to get in touch with Stonebanks Investments, who we understand are aiming to accommodate existing groups and activities.

"In addition, we understand that most current staff are expected to be offered roles with the new operators.

"The Exchange Theatre has been a wonderful home for creatives, artists and musicians, and we hope this can continue and we wish Stonebanks Investments all the best in their venture."

Plans include renovating the bar, restaurant and courtyard areas as well as the auditorium, office spaces and Thomas Brown meeting room. Credit: Exchange Theatre

A statement from Stonebanks Investments reads: "It gives us great pleasure to inform you that The Exchange will not close in April and will continue operating across all areas as normal.

"The renovation and transformation of The Exchange will be completed around existing operations. We have guaranteed all previous bookings made under The Exchange Theatre Charity and are in positive dialogue with all parties about developing and expanding these relationships.

"In addition, we have secured additional bookings across areas such as music and theatre and are working to finalise a jam-packed programme for the benefit of our entire community.

"This exciting inclusive cultural programme will be announced in the coming weeks."

North Shields businessman, Paul Stonebanks OBE, is the new leaseholder of The Exchange, North Shields. Credit: Judy Stirling

Mr Stonebanks added: “We remain in positive discussions with the charity at The Exchange to find a mutually agreeable sustainable and community focused partnership as we understand the importance of continuing a charitable offer which supports the wider community.

“We have negotiated a ten-year agreement with a local expert bar and restaurant group securing existing jobs and bringing a further 15 full time equivalent roles in the coming months with more to follow.

“Within the Saville Exchange, we have secured 10-year rental deals on two large offices, bringing another 40 full-time roles to The Exchange and its local community in 2023/24."

A North Tyneside council spokesperson said: “Stonebanks have confirmed that all staff have been offered to continue their employment." Credit: Credit: Exchange Theatre

A spokesperson for North Tyneside Council said: “Stonebanks are prepared to invest significantly into the Grade II listed building and grow the cultural offer and support our wider ambitions for the town centre.

"We're working closely with them on the transfer of the building and look forward to seeing this cultural landmark flourish in the future.

“Stonebanks have confirmed that all staff have been offered to continue their employment and all existing bookings will be honoured as a priority, to ensure the delivery of North Shields' cultural offer continues uninterrupted."

The Exchange has announced they will be creating a digital scrapbook and archive with audio recordings, photographs and digital copies of memories and memorabilia.

When the charity take their final bow from the venue on Monday 17 April, they will hold a sale of items including costumes, stage and technical equipment and furniture, with all proceeds going towards continuing the charity's aims and objectives.

Speaking about Stonebank's appointment as custodian of the venue, Equity's regional organiser, Dominic Bascombe, said: "At this point I would say it's a positive development and clearly happened after the community and Equity raised concerns about the process.

"Equity members signed a petition, attended the council cabinet meeting and wrote to the local councillors. The positive changes we are hearing about now is clearly a result of the council being put under scrutiny.

"There is still more information needed about what the work programme will look like and just how commercially successful it can be under the new leaseholder.

"We do want to see the success of The Exchange and look forward to hearing about the full use of trade union agreements in any cultural work taking place in North Tyneside owned buildings."

A meeting is taking place today (Friday 31 March) to further discuss the venue's future.

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