HOME Soon: Our plans for reopening in September

HOME’s Executive Director Jon Gilchrist writes about our plans for reopening on 4th September, and what the future holds: 

When HOME closed its doors to the public in March, we didn’t know how long it would be for. But it’s safe to say that at that point no one anticipated the gravity of the COVID-19 crisis, and the impact it would have on arts and culture in the UK.

Upon leaving the building on 24th March, with all three floors empty of people, I thought back to a Friday night less than one month earlier where every corner of HOME was full of people. There was a sell-out performance of our new musical Insane Animals, packed cinemas for a Q&A with Steve Coogan for his film Greed, and the awards night for the Manchester Open exhibition. We were full to bursting, and the atmosphere was electric. It’s nights like this where HOME shines brightest: bringing together audiences from across the region and embracing different cultural experiences.

HOME was created as a social space, and in its first five years it has triumphed as such. Last year we had a record-breaking 800,000 visits to HOME. This is testament to the incredible team, our supporters, funders and trustees. But now we have to reconcile ourselves with an entirely new challenge: with COVID-19 an ongoing reality, how do we create a social space in a socially distanced world?

The big news is that we’re aiming for 4th September as our reopening date.

Obviously things will look a lot different to usual. We’re planning on initially opening just our cinemas, bars and restaurant – with theatre, gallery and other activity returning gradually in the weeks that follow. We’ll also be reintroducing some of our Engagement and Talent Development work back into the building.

We’re working hard to look at expert advice, to make sure our visitors, staff and artists are safe – and we’ve been busy speaking to colleagues across the UK and analysing examples from across the world to find best practice. In addition, we’re carrying out extensive research with our audiences, and we know that people are desperate to get back to HOME. 54% of those surveyed said they would return soon if they saw the highest possible standards in hygiene and social distancing, and we’re committed to providing that while retaining as much of the atmosphere that makes us special as we can.

We’re lucky that our design and architecture make it possible to open with social distancing in place – for example our large open space on entry, wide central staircase and toilets on every level. Alongside our catering operator Wardleys, we’ll be working tirelessly to introduce new measures to make HOME safe and welcoming.

While we are aware that the Government has stated cinemas may reopen from 4th July, this is not the best option for many independent cinemas like ourselves whose programmes do not focus on the Summer blockbusters. Instead, we want to take the time to ensure that we have time to make the necessary adjustments to the building, and to speak to our audiences about how they can be involved in our plans.

By opening as soon as it is safe and affordable to do so, we will play our part in the re-opening of the city, the recovery of our communities and the survival of the arts. We are planning an amazing programme that will repay our audiences and patrons for the generosity and goodwill they continually show us. And more than anything we miss doing what we do best – bringing great art and audiences together in a welcoming and engaging place.

What will our programme look like?

Social distancing has also had an effect on how we are planning our programme. We estimate that even with reduced distancing, cinema capacity will initially be around 20% to 30%, gradually increasing as the distancing measures are relaxed. We’re also planning on fewer screenings per day, to avoid bottlenecks into cinemas and allow enhanced cleaning in between screenings.

Our Gallery will open slightly later into the Autumn, with restrictions to the numbers of people allowed in at any one time, and we are looking at options including allocating time slots.

Theatre and live performance remain one the most challenging areas for venues like HOME. With social distancing in place, rehearsals and pre-production will be difficult, and reduced seating capacity makes the economics of producing theatre near impossible. Because of this, we have shelved any plans for larger-scale new productions in the immediate future, and many of the touring shows for the Autumn and beyond have been postponed. Whilst this is devasting in so many ways, we are determined to provide a live performance offer as soon as it becomes possible.

The intimacy of our T2 space means we will not be opening it for audiences immediately, instead it will become an additional space for socially distanced artist development and engagement work. T1 will reopen, and, like the cinemas, will have between 20% and 30% capacity. We are working with specialists to redesign the space with social distancing measures in mind. Our programme is still in development and we are aiming to announce events for the Autumn later this Summer.

We’ll also be welcoming artists back into the venue to begin research and development on new projects. It’s vital that the artistic wheels keep turning and the creative talent of our city is able to respond to these extraordinary times.

What’s clear is that not everyone will want to return to public venues immediately: but we want to be open for those who do. We also need to deliver work in other ways for those audiences that aren’t able to make the journey back just yet, including individuals who are shielding or are unable to travel. We’ll continue to present our online commissions Homemakers and other work digitally even when the building is open.

What is the financial impact of the crisis?

With record-breaking visitor numbers last year, our income was at its highest-ever levels. Overnight in March, this disappeared. As a charity, we take no profit and all income generated is reinvested back into the programme including our artistic work, our work with communities and young people, and supporting free or discounted tickets to ensure widest possible access to our activities. The financial repercussions of the coronavirus on HOME have been devastating.

Even if we reopen in September, we estimate that the negative impact of the pandemic will be over £1 million for this financial year alone. We’ve been able to adapt and reduce costs in many areas, and we have had support from the Government by furloughing around 80% of our workforce. We’re also so grateful for the support of our audiences, with our Response Fund receiving so many generous donations, and many customers converting their tickets for cancelled events into donations.

While the financial consequences of this pandemic are huge, that is not the only challenge. The COVID-19 crisis has placed many arts venues like us on unstable ground. We need to prepare for the long term shock to the UK’s economy, or the chance that measures in social distancing might change again in the future. We are working with colleagues across the country to make the case to government for more support to help the cultural sector get back on its feet.

Safeguarding as many jobs as possible has been a priority for HOME, but we do have to find ways to save money to get us through this crisis. We are currently at the beginning of a consultation process on redundancies which we are striving to keep as low as possible, as well as a freeze on all but the most essential recruitment. These measures, while incredibly painful, are necessary to ensure the future survival of HOME, and the artistic output and employment we provide.

We still need your help – here’s how you can get involved

There are three ways that our audiences can help us right now:

Join our HOME Soon Panel

With our target reopening date of 4th September on the horizon, we are creating a panel of people to be part of the discussion, and we’re looking for members of our audience to be part of this. We’ll be discussing things like:

  • additional safety measures
  • approaches to programming
  • how we engage with people most affected by the current crisis
  • how our programme affects the big issues of society today, including Black Lives Matter

The HOME Soon Panel will be part of wider consultation with the many different users and stakeholders that make HOME what it is. This includes our recent appointment of Darren Pritchard as our national Freelance Taskforce representative.

Find out more about our HOME Soon Panel here.

Support us

Opening our building with reduced capacity will be a major financial challenge for us, and we will need the support of our audiences and friends more than ever before. Thank you for all your support so far – we will share more information on new ways to support HOME soon.

But for now, we are focusing on the immediate costs of reopening to keep our audience and staff safe and well – buying PPE, re-designing our cinema and theatre spaces, and buying new technology to enable social distancing. Your donations to the Response Fund will help us to do this – please continue to give generously, and we look forward to thanking you in person when we’re back in the building.

Get back to HOME

It’s a simple thing, but by buying a ticket or booking a table in our restaurant you’ll be part of reigniting the HOME fire. We might not be at full capacity straight away, but we’ll be announcing details of the programme in the coming weeks and months. We hope you can join us again.

Thank You!

Jon Gilchrist

Executive Director