The arts are vital to the wellbeing of Helmsley

The arts are vital to the wellbeing of one North Yorkshire market town as Chris Titley discovers Photographs by Joan Russell

Getting there: Helmsley is halfway between Thirsk and Pickering on the A170. There is a direct bus service from York.

Where to park: Try the car park in the Market Place.

What to do: Take in a show at the Arts Centre, take a plunge in the pool, or visit the ruined castle and the walled garden.

If Prime Minister David Cameron thinks the Big Society is a new idea he dreamed up all by himself he should talk to the community-minded people of Helmsley – they’ve run a small-scale big society for years.

Take the Helmsley Arts Centre as an example. It was back in 1988 that a band of volunteers raised the money to buy the Old Meeting House, initially with a view to hosting what became the extremely popular Ryedale Festival.

A few years later a small group came together to stage the first arts events there. One of them, Martin Vander Weyer, said conditions were pretty basic. ‘We opened it up and started doing a small number of events, one a month, something like that,’ he recalled. ‘There was no heat and we had to plug an extension cable into the friendly shop next door for power.’

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Nevertheless, the arts centre started to gain momentum and plans were drawn up to refresh and refurbish the 1812 building. First came a contribution from Ryedale District Council, and then Martin applied for a grant from the new National Lottery fund for the arts. Having courted controversy with enormous donations to the likes of the Royal Opera House and Sadler’s Wells, the lottery was keen to fund smaller, regional causes.

‘They sent a very friendly assessor of our bid who looked at it and said, this is quiteod Martin but you haven’t applied for enough money!’The extra cash bought a new foyer, a studio bar, lighting and other equipment. The centre was buzzing – then disaster struck. A catastrophic fire in 2000 destroyed everything the lottery grant had bought.

But the disaster generated a terrific response from residents and when the centre reopened it was with reinvigorated public support and a rethought artistic policy which aimed to cater for all ages.

Today the Helmsley Arts Centre hosts music, movies, theatre, comedy, exhibitions – more than 100 nights of entertainment last year. It is home to the 1812 Theatre Company and the thriving youth theatre has a waiting list of young performers.

Remarkably the centre is powered largely by volunteers – around 80 of them at the last count. Without their efforts, the few paid staff could not hope to keep it open.

Martin’s successor as director of the arts centre, David Powley, reckons if you paid the volunteers �10 an hour their time would be worth at least �90,000 a year. So why do they do it for free?

‘It’s because they think the arts are really important. It’s a really lively and friendly social hub – people come because they like being there, and like the people they meet there.

‘And because what we put on is of a high standard. It’s exciting!’For a small arts centre seating 140 in a market town in the heart of rural North Yorkshire, Helmsley Arts Centre punches way above its weight.‘We can bring in Sir Tom Courtenay or pianist Nikolai Demidenko – big names – and really reputable theatre companies like Hull Truck, really good musicians like Natalie Clein.

‘They’re not cheap but a lot of the people who perform here really like it and are pleased to come back. But we also give a lot of opportunities for younger performers, professional and amateur, of really high quality.’

As you’d expect for a place originally envisaged as home to the Helmsley Music Festival, the arts centre is a key venue for what is now known as Ryedale Festival. Celebrating its 30th birthday this year the festival has booked out the centre for the whole event taking place from July 15th-31st for performances and rehearsals.

An exhibition of the photographs of Sydney Smith will open at the same time.

Such a fantastic example of community endeavour would, you might think, receive wholehearted support from the powers-that-be. Well up to now that was true. The Arts Council gave Helmsley Arts Centre an annual grant. But that funding is axed from 2012, and the centre hasn’t been accepted into the Arts Council’s National Portfolio of organisations to receive regular funds in future.

Only about 20 per cent of its income comes from public subsidy. To lose the money is still a blow and might jeopardise the high standards expected by Helmsley’s audience – which is drawn from across Yorkshire and beyond.

‘It’s not an impossible amount to replace. We’ll just have to look for it elsewhere,’ said David. ‘What we would be very reluctant to do is to reduce the quality of what we do. You have to pay for quality.’ Helmsley Arts Centre is “the Big Society writ small,”’ says Martin. ‘It’s exactly the sort of thing David Cameron’s talking about. ‘I’m suspicious about that phrase, the Big Society. Although I understand what he meant, it’s got deeply confused with losing state funding.’

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