Belfast's newest theatre may have to close just three years after it opened if cash-strapped Stormont cannot find £1m to pay for repair work, an Assembly committee has been told.
As the Belfast Telegraph revealed two months ago, stonework at the entrance of the £18m award-winning Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC) in the Cathedral Quarter has begun to crumble.
The venue is on the shortlist for the prestigious Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year.
But at a meeting of the Stormont committee that scrutinises the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL), the SDLP's Dominic Bradley asked: "What happens if the bid for the repair of the MAC is not met?"
David Carson, DCAL's director of finance, replied: "If the issues are not sorted, there will need to be an assessment done of what the consequences might be. That could lead to the closure of the building."
A statement last night from the MAC's management concluded there was "no question" of it closing.
Investigations are under way into why large chunks of basalt stone tiles fell from the exterior of the six-storey arts centre, which opened in April 2012.
Committee chairman Nelson McCausland asked where the blame lay for the failure "in what is a very new building".
Mr Carson replied: "Clearly, the fact that it is a new building would lead one to believe that there was an issue with the workmanship or the delivery of the facility.
"Those issues will be investigated, clarified and resolved. At this stage, we will certainly be looking to reclaim any costs for such work and any further work that is required to make the building safe."
The DUP's Gordon Dunne asked: "Have the contractor and consultants gone some way towards rectifying the problem, or are they stepping back from it at this stage?"
Mr Carson said: "The liability issues have still to be clarified at this stage. That is a matter to be resolved."
Ulster Unionist MLA Leslie Cree added: "I would have thought that you had to put the contractor on notice at the outset. Could that not have been done?"
Michael O'Dowd, DCAL's head of finance, replied: "It is not a straightforward contractor problem. It could be a design problem. The people who designed the facility could be at fault for some of their work. It may not be the contractor's problem."
The theatre said they were working on the problem. A spokeswoman added: "An issue with the cladding of the external of the MAC building has been identified. We have taken precautionary steps to make the building safe while we identify the cause and scale of the overriding issue. Specific information on the cost and timescale for the wider repair work will become clear in due course."
"We are working with our funders at DCAL and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland on this issue and we are confident it will be satisfactorily resolved. It is therefore our view that there is no question of the MAC closing."
The MAC was designed by Hackett Hall McKnight Architects, now known as Hall McKnight Architects. It includes two theatres, three visual art galleries, a dance studio, workshops, a cafe and a bar.
In 2013, the MAC was recognised for its architectural excellence with a National Award from the Royal Institute of British Architects.
The cost of the MAC was £17.6m, leading the Audit Office to criticise the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure for allowing the project to go over its budget, which was initially estimated at £9.2m.
More than 600,000 people have visited the flagship arts venue since it opened, according to its own figures.