The successful story we can tell now of Wales Millennium Centre and the creative organisations clustered around it in the historic dock area did not have an auspicious start.
In 1994 Cardiff Bay Development Corporation, through the Cardiff Bay Opera Trust, was to start a revival of the neglected docklands by building a much-needed home for the world-renowned Welsh National Opera (WNO), and a competition was won by the stunning “crystal palace” concept of Zaha Hadid for a Cardiff Bay Opera House that would rival Sydney’s.
But the Millennium Commission, one of the National Lottery Fund distributors that would be a key funder, preferred a more populist new rugby venue for Cardiff, the Millennium Stadium, in which their funds were invested.
Cardiff knew, nevertheless, that something more than the future of Welsh opera was at stake: the chance of a cultural zone that would not only revive Cardiff Bay but offer a showcase of Wales to the world and of the world to Wales. This stimulated a new proposal, a phoenix from the ashes of the opera house project, which was to lead to the creation of Wales Millennium Centre.
A visionary group working with the then Secretary of State for Wales, Lord Crickhowell, created a masterplan for the re-development of Cardiff Bay, in which the site for this building was clearly delineated.
This new body turned to a Welsh practice, the then Percy Thomas Partnership (now Capita Architecture), whose Jonathan Adams responded to the brief to create a building that was unmistakably Welsh but internationally outstanding. He created a £106m arts centre from Welsh materials, including 1,350 tonnes of slate from North Wales, timbers from managed Welsh woodlands and steel from Pontypool, in the South Wales Valleys.
The dream was not yet funded, however, and the Welsh Assembly had to be persuaded. With all-party support from the Assembly, up to £37 million was earmarked after which the Millennium Commission signed up to the revised proposal, together with other vital financial supporters, Cardiff Council and the Arts Council of Wales.
An ambitious fundraising campaign secured the biggest ever single donation to a Welsh arts project, through the enormous generosity of the South African businessman, arts lover and Wales aficionado, Sir Donald Gordon who pledged £10m.
The unrealistic original goal of the Millennium year for opening having been put aside, planning permission was granted and work began in January 2002. Within 22 months the Centre was officially opened by Her Majesty the Queen on 28 November, 2004, at a gala evening showcasing Welsh stars of theatre and opera, as well as international companies such as Mariinsky Ballet, Cirque Éloize and Cape Town Opera.
The enlightened pragmatism that brought us Wales Millennium Centre has been the guiding spirit ever since. The founding Chairman, Lord Rowe-Beddoe, and his board drove the project with single minded purpose, before appointing Judith Isherwood as chief executive in 2003 to get it opened. She had successfully transformed Sydney Opera House from a tourist attraction to an international arts venue.
From the outset, the aim was to create a community of arts organisations, built not simply around the bricks and mortar of an iconic building but through a cohort of residents, from WNO, as the largest to Touch Trust, the smallest. As well as hosting Welsh artistic achievement, the Centre became a touring venue for major international shows, like the National Theatre’s War Horse, and is a favourite location for filming – the Centre has appeared seven times in Doctor Who episodes.
The first years were challenging because of the minimal level of public subsidy (£750,000 a year, a mere 6% of its required income), but the Welsh Government showed its confidence. After cogent representation the Centre was put on a firmer financial footing, increasing its annual subsidy to £3.6 million, or 19% of its total income - still considerably less than that received by comparable venues such as London’s Southbank Centre, the Barbican Centre, not to mention the Royal Opera House.
Progress has been impressive with awards coming Wales Millennium Centre’s way, the most recent in being named the UK’s Most Welcoming Theatre in the 2014 UK Theatre Awards. And having earned its national and international status, the promise is even more exciting.
The new artistic director, Graeme Farrow, is keeping faith with both the residents and the big touring productions, but looking outside to Cardiff and Wales to help create and fund new work and answer calls from a growing andgrowingly enthusiastic audience. “The arsenal that I have here is incredible, and I don’t think we’ve done enough with it yet”, he says. “But that’s probably because we’re only ten.”