Arts Wars: A New Hope

An organisation aims to turn Edinburgh’s old Odeon on Clerk St (or The New Victoria, as it was originally named) into a multi-arts venue, restoring the Art Deco building to its original grandeur and opening up one of the city’s best loved spaces as a flexible environment that is both creative and profitable. Sound almost too good to be true? Artistic Director Helen Raw talks to The Skinny about how they plan to achieve their ambitious dream

Feature by Rosamund West | 30 Nov 2010

November seemed a pretty dark month for arts venues in Edinburgh, as the collapse of the Edinburgh Settlement saw the Roxy close, the Forest threatened and the GRV bought over. But whisperings also started to emerge of a new project, news spreading first through social networking sites, and gradually seeping into excited real life conversation as it became increasingly apparent that The New Victoria was just the kind of venture that locals had been waiting for. Still, don’t get too excited – nothing is certain as yet, as the team have still to secure purchase of the building.

First, a bit of background. The New Victoria project is spearheaded by a core team of three. There’s Sarah Colquhoun, whose background is in hospitality and venue management; Helen Raw, who has extensive experience of working in theatre; and Vicki Simpson, a part two architect who has been busy creating the actual plans and drawings of what this restored venue could look like, turning around the extensive details of an ambitious project in a remarkably short time.

Surrounding them is a large network of volunteers, skilled professionals from accountants to web designers who are donating their time for free, which, as Helen says, “Goes to show how much something like this is actually needed in Edinburgh, by the public, and how close it is to people’s hearts.”

One of the most remarkable things about The New Victoria is how quickly everything’s started coming together. “It’s been a relatively short space of time [three months] that all of this work has gone in. We’ve got a business plan; we’ve got our architect drawings. The amount of work that’s been done you would normally expect to have taken the best part of the year.” The short time frame is the result of the marketing period of the building, which is three months. This is the time organisations have to submit proposals on what they would do with the building, with the current owners able to reject bids that they deem commercially unviable. It went on the market in the autumn, so it is expected that a decision will be reached in late December. Other bids have already been rejected.

So what exactly will The New Victoria do? “We want to make as much use of the building as possible. The main parts for restoration are the façade, the Crush Hall and the main auditorium, and everything else we would bring up to the same standard and keep it 1930s Art Deco. Back to how it was, with a modern twist on it.

“There’s going to be music, theatre, cabaret, concerts, conferences, weddings. A café bar and ice cream parlour would be in the foyer. Then you would come through to the Crush Hall where we would have informal dining, informal events, and a grand piano in the corner somewhere, just a nice atmosphere.” On either side will be further rooms, flexible in their purpose, from cabaret to cinema. “So each space can be used simultaneously for a different purpose. You could have a cabaret show for 30 people in one room, a private film screening in another, a wedding elsewhere. No venue in Edinburgh can do that.”

Upstairs, the old auditorium will be another flexible space, for music, theatre, pantomime, cinema and so on, seating 500. “We would also anticipate that that would be our red carpet venue, because there’s not been a red carpet premiere in the Southside of Edinburgh for about ten years now, since the Odeon ceased to be a proper cinema. It would be great to bring that back as well.”

In between, the mezzanine floor would be made into a café bar, reopening the grand Art Deco balcony that currently lies desolate, a visible reminder to passersby on Clerk St that we are currently leaving one of our most iconic buildings to rot.

The New Victoria plans are grand, but they are also practical. They are very clear that they want to set up a business that is profitable, and does not rely on regular funding handouts. Says Helen, “We don’t want to be another arts and events venue that is consistently, constantly asking for funding.” And how do they plan to achieve this? “We’re focusing on an arts, theatre, film and music venue that is different enough that corporate people would want to come there too. The money for keeping everything going would come from the commercial side rather than the art side. So it’s not a wedding venue that has a cinema tagged to the side, it’s very much focusing on what the venue is with the arts side, and that will also bring people in for weddings, conferences and so on.” One side feeds the other? "Exactly."

These plans are undeniably exciting, and could potentially create a (much-needed) new space for performance, workshops, screenings, and much more in the capital’s Southside. They would also create jobs in the besieged arts sector as well as, crucially, saving a beautiful building for the Scottish public. There are still many variables unfortunately, from securing the building (down to the whims of a property company) and then securing investment (although they have already had a healthy amount of interest). If you’d like to join the supporters, go to Even something as small as 'liking' them on Facebook could help to demonstrate how great the desire to see this venue become a multi-arts space really is.