ARTS CENTRE Civic pride
Barnsley’s new arts centre is reviving its ambitious plans for the future. Patrick Kelly reports
Across the road from Barnsley’s transport exchange is an imposing three storey Victoria building, spruced up and glowing, wrought by Yorkshire’s finest ironmongers. The Civic Hall is a physical expression of this mining town’s confidence in the future, a venue for self-education, through a varied programme of concerts and lectures.
But look closer through the modern glass foyer and you will find that the imposing façade is just that. The grand lobby leads nowhere except to a pair of temporary council offices, and the magnificent new escalators are silent and shuttered.
This was to have been the entrance to a major new arts centre, gallery and design-led retail emporium, which would showcase the creative spirit of the new Barnsley and be the linchpin of a cultural renaissance in a town that had been hit hard by the closure of its mining industry in the decades before. An ambitious council saw the first decade of the 21st century as a chance to re-imagine the town and engaged star architect Will Alsop to masterplan a new 25 year vision for the town. Alsop’s dreamlike vision was of a Tuscan hilltop town in the North, a notion which caused much ribaldry at the time.
But Barnsley got on with it, and with support from Arts Council England and the now-lamented regional development agency, Yorkshire Forward, the Civic was rebuilt and remodelled in 2009. It now includes a 384 seat performance space, an art gallery, modern of office accommodation and business units and a range of meeting spaces. But only the first phase of the plan was completed, as the credit crunch, then the recession, put paid to the commercial end of the development. Austerity and local government funding cuts have added the coup de grace to the plan, leaving a large part of the new building unoccupied.
But all that may be about to change. The Civic has won a major boost from the Arts Council’s Catalyst Evolve Fund, which helps organisations like The Civic with a limited track record in fundraising to attract more private giving. Money raised will be matched by the fund over a three-year period. Civic chief executive Helen Ball is confident that they can put together a plan for the £5m they need to bring the whole of the new building back into use. The plan is to create new performance spaces, educational and workshop areas and to place the box office on that Victorian front- age. There are proposals for a new bar, café and shop which will in- crease the visibility of the Civic, which has suffered from the fact that its working operation is hidden behind the old façade. Audiences currently have to find their way round the back of the building, via an historic but somewhat gloomy passageway.
“The Victorian frontage has history behind it,” says Ball. “It’s part of the cultural story of Barnsley and we miss having that high street presence. It’s been a real frustration for us that the public can’t enjoy the whole building.”
Gaining access to those unused and undeveloped floors would also enable the Civic to widen the range of the programme and also encourage other organisations to use the space for artistic activities. Barnsley’s Mu- sic Education Hub is already holding concerts and workshops in the existing space, but there is huge potential for more, she says.
The changes would also increase the gallery’s exhibition space and al- low the Civic to provide spaces where the public could see artists making work. “We have always been more than just a white cube space,” says Ball. “Our exhibitions have always been very design led, responsive and interactive, but this would allow people to see the business of creating work and get involved themselves.”
The Catalyst Evolve fund will also help build new relationships with the community, she adds. Already Henry Boot construction, which is busy remodelling the town’s shop- ping centre and world famous markets, just across the road from the Civic, have become the arts centre’s business champions and staff have raised £5,000 towards the revamp. Other high pro le supporters include Sir Michael Parkinson, ballerina Tala Lee-Turton and celebrity hairdresser Andrew Barton, as well as BBC radio’s Dame Jenni Murray.
Since its opening back in 2009, the Civic has secured NPO status from Arts Council England, and developed a combined arts programme catering for a range of tastes and interests which up to now, hasn’t needed a council subsidy. And Ball is proud of the fact that groups like Mark Mark, the street theatre company and Tell Tale Hearts, the children’s touring company now call the Civic their home. “But there is so much more potential here in Barnsley,” she says.
“We want to be able to support a wealth of creative businesses and projects to develop and thrive and we want to add to Barnsley town centre’s leisure and entertainment offer as part of their evening economy.”
The original Civic was built as a Public Hall by Charles Harvey in 1877 and achieved a certain amount of notoriety when it became the site of an appalling tragedy when 16 children were crushed in a crowd stampede in 1908. In later years, the Civic hall did service as a wartime soup kitchen and library. In 1962, the Hall became Barnsley Civic Theatre, a traditional proscenium
arch theatre seating 800 people and attracting some of the biggest names in show business to the town, including Charlie Williams and Ken Dodd.
The theatre continued to entertain audiences until 1998. Increasing maintenance problems andfi nancial difficulties meant the theatre was forced to close. It is a Grade II listed building with a spectacular ceiling in the main performance area.