In an era of funding cuts, how can a town like Barnsley find the level of support it needs to encourage badly needed cultural regeneration? Helen Ball describes the challenges.

Visualisation of The Civic Barnsley
An artist's impression of proposed developments to The Civic Barnsley


What does it feel like when you’re dancing? “Don’t know… like electricity. Yeah, like electricity.” So said Billy Elliot, based on the life of Philip Mosley, a boy from a mining family in Barnsley.

“The message is that you can achieve everything if you really want it,” Philip said of the film. It’s powerful because of the uplifting end as Billy rises against seemingly unsurmountable odds. Billy’s story of doors slamming in the face of aspiration and inequality is needed more than ever.

Culture, we know, works as a catalyst for economic and social regeneration. We need investment in Barnsley, and towns like it.

In 1998 The Civic in Barnsley closed due to financial and maintenance difficulties. In 2002, a detailed consultation with the public on the future vision for the town placed its redevelopment as a priority. A financial package saw the remodelled building reopen in 2009, but due to unforeseen structural work, the building was passed over to a trust (Barnsley Civic Enterprise Ltd) with a third of the building unfinished and unused.

Funding and fundraising

The balance between prudent budgeting and our ambition to deliver an arts centre Barnsley deserves is a huge undertaking for a small charity. We are not alone. There is a huge over-reliance on public funds in a climate of ever reducing funding from Arts Council England (ACE) and a squeeze on local authority budgets.

Our charitable trust is reliant on an annual subsidy from both ACE and Barnsley Council. Since 2009 we have worked hard to build audiences and develop a reputation for artistic programming. In recent years though, subsidies have been reduced, leading to a renewed focus on generating trading income to ensure a more sustainable future.

Last year, we launched a £5m fundraising campaign to re-open the dormant third of our building, with the vision to add a new theatre, café and extended gallery, and create a wow-factor – a world-class destination for the arts – by 2023. Using the space will generate more income from trading.

Economic and social shortfalls

Investment is important. Barnsley is part of the Sheffield City region, an area that has not yet reached its economic potential after a decrease in private sector employment between 1998 and 2008. It’s a position we’re still fighting to recover from.

Indices show that those living in our once proud communities (former coal regions) have significantly higher levels of deprivation, illness and unemployment than elsewhere. In Barnsley, child poverty is at an all-time high. It was reported by the Education Policy Institute that the proportion of students taking arts subjects has fallen to its lowest level in a decade. In the push for higher grades, there’s little room to explore or dream.

The report also revealed a north-south divide, with far more students taking arts subjects in the south than the north. What’s more, the IPPR North think tank  showed northern secondary schools are funded £1,300 less per pupil compared to those in London. The same think tank found the arts in the north should be allocated almost £700m to receive an equal level of funding as London.

More than half of the theatres on the Theatres Trust’s At Risk Register are based in the north, in a climate of multiple deprivation and a struggle to find investment. The north-south divide is at a level that is pervasive in our social, economic and cultural life. Barnsley is in the lowest 35% of local authority areas for cultural engagement.

Against this backdrop, the arts – the soul of our nation – are under siege. The prevalence of Eton-educated actors is well known. Julie Walters, who starred in the Billy Elliot film, said if she was starting out now she most likely wouldn’t make it as an actor. She was given a full grant to get into drama school.

Social investment

Subsidies are needed for good reason in a society where the chasm between the haves and have nots – those who can afford a cultural life and those who can’t – is yawning.

Culture, we know, works as a catalyst for economic and social regeneration. We need investment in Barnsley, and towns like it. We need places like The Civic. As part of our campaign we’ve enlisted the support of some famous Barnsley-born faces, including the real-life Billy, Philip Mosley.

“The Civic was where I had some of my earliest dance classes with the Rosalyn Wicks School of Dance when she had her school there,” Philip said. “It was also where I did one of my first performances, so it played a vital role in me wanting to be a dancer. Without it I may never have joined the Royal Ballet, one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the world.”

In a recent interview for us, another of our champions, Dame Jenni Murray, talked about growing up in a working-class family in Barnsley and how the theatre, concerts and musicals she had access to, such as The Civic and Sheffield Playhouse, formed the basis of her life. “It’s given me my career,” she said. “It’s absolutely vital that we consider the arts every bit as important as the sciences.”

In times of hardship, the arts need to flourish as a means of expression and escape. In the spirit of Barnsley, and of Billy, the arts still offer an avenue for us to triumph.

Who foots the bill?

We are of course pursuing all avenues of fundraising, both from grant bodies, businesses and the general public.

Philanthropy is important and to be encouraged, but individuals and corporate business cannot be expected to foot the bill for all the services that help make their place of business or community thrive.

Investment into neighbouring cities, alongside out-of-town retail, is damaging Barnsley’s town centre. Barnsley is being brave and building a brand new library, as well as investing significantly in its retail and leisure offer, but as regeneration in former industrial regions like Liverpool and Hull shows, culture offers a powerful conduit. We need a beating heart at the centre of it all.

We will keep fundraising for our theatre to be the beating heart of Barnsley. In a climate of public sector cuts, the borough needs support with further investment into its arts offer to help it grow. The arts are like electricity – once gone, you’ll know it.

Helen Ball is Chief Executive of The Civic.

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Photo of Helen Ball