How The Gate saved itself

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Plastik met up with TJ Wheeler, 24 year old director of The Gate, three months after he took over the position from the previous director.

He talked to us about the repositioning that the arts centre has undergone since it almost closed down a few years ago.

For the tape, who are you, what do you do and how old are you?

I’m TJ Wheeler, centre director at The Gate and I’m 24.

You’ve just started right?

3 months in now! I’ve got my three month review soon. I’ve just started. I was centre manager for two months before this and then training manager before that and a person on the bar. So two and a half years since I started.

How’s it all going?

Good, actually. Genuinely good. Exciting I suppose because we’ve got lots of options, lots of new stuff on the table, lot of stuff to do. It has its stress points where we don’t have enough money for things or staff issues. All in all, I’m enjoying it. It feels like we’re getting somewhere.

The Gate has changed in, let’s say… five years. It used to be just an arts centre but in your opinion how has it changed?

I think it’s grown in what it has done. As you say, it used to be an arts centre on a smaller scale with a lot less presence and influence in Cardiff. Fewer people using it. It’s grown in both how many people come through the door and the types of things we do. We also hire the building out now. We’ve looked a lot more at the community and doing things to support it instead of just putting on arts events: training programmes on all sorts of different levels, professional internships with graduates. It’s a blend! It’s bizarrely come back to how we started: the heart and the ethos behind it has gone full circle now. We’re in a new era.

You say the ethos has gone back to how it was, what is the ethos?

That someone could come and feel secure, a part of something bigger than themselves, safe, able to relax, able to enjoy. ‘A cup of water for the soul’ was the catchphrase. It does that, I think. It’s grown into something which can generally engage with people and generally engage with our community – doing that through arts and getting alongside people and helping them in their journey. It’s working out where we go from here.

Aren’t there almost 20 different languages spoken on the streets around The Gate?

Yeh. We’re in an extremely multiethnic area and I think one of the things we’ll move into is trying to engage better. The majority of people that use The Gate aren’t in those minority groups so we’ve got to do a lot to improve that and make it more realistic for our local community but that takes time. We’ve got to build trust, relationships and connections. We’ve had some exciting starts and some good hires for events which support and focus on those links but we’d like to improve that and see it become much more realistic and representative.

Three years ago, The Gate almost closed. Now it’s obviously not in the same way, what’s the key?

I’d say it’s a bit of a blend really. A key component would be Mark Stavers, the previous centre Director who I took over from. He came on maybe four years ago and has turned it round from being however many thousands of pounds in debt to doing very well. I think he both worked hard and did the work of three full time jobs at the same time but also he came back to what he really wanted The Gate to be about. He focussed his energy on that and brought in Adam, the hires manager, to try and bring in more income from using the space better. Having a bit of clarity and organisation in that way has really helped our bottom line.

As well as the clever business, I assume that the accounts have been helped by your intern programme?

Yes and no I suppose. We started the training programme last September, when I started full time. We wanted to run a training programme for unemployed people aged 18-24 who had been unemployed for six months or more. We wanted to develop their character and attitude, enable them to work and give them a bit of coaching – moral guidance, I guess. That was only part funded by the programme itself so we still ended up putting 10-20K a year into that because it’s what we thought we should do as a community centre. We actually ended up running that at a loss. Now it’s progressing into something a bit more supported. We’ve got access to grant funding and this should be the first year where we can both improve what we do and not run at a loss. It’s a positive step.