York’s amazing Arts Barge sets sail on new voyage

3 Feb 2012 @ 10.10 am
| Entertainment

As they prepare for a major fundraiser, Marcia Mackey tells YorkMix the story behind the Arts Barge project…

The ArtsBarge in full swing last summer. Picture © John Illingworth Photography

The Arts Barge idea started after a conversation in 2008 about the closure of Micklegate Arts Centre and the realisation that nothing had come along to replace it in ten years.

The old arts centre, housed in All Saints Church, North Street, now The Parish bar, opened in 1968. It was the first arts centre of its kind in the country.

One of our group, Steve Blakeman, has lived on the river for over 15 years. He knew that a barge would offer real financial advantages over a building.

But however great the idea sounded in the abstract, we had to demonstrate that we could actually do what we said we wanted to do; namely, run a community arts project.

We quickly committed to the idea of a genuinely community-focused venue. We wanted to convey the sense of ‘community’ without the negative connotations of that description.

There’s no reason why an arts centre should have a parochial or amateur feel to it. To make it succeed, we knew that we had to focus on the need for excellent quality. So, we would draw heavily on local talent, but also take advantage of the links between our ‘local’ artists and their friends and colleagues throughout the region and the rest of the country.

In these early days we also committed to the idea that the project should be managed on a proper business basis and – in the long run – not rely on grant funding; we aimed to run as a ‘social enterprise’ with all ‘profits’ reinvested directly into the project.

Our first fund-raiser was at Crescent WMC – a gig in the style of Jools Holland’s Later show. It was a great night, played to a full house, and it brought some brilliant feedback.

One member of the audience turned out to be especially helpful. That was James Houston, director of the Forest of Galtres Festival. James invited us to be part of Galtres 2009.

Our brief was to provide a more carnivalesque dimension to the festival as well as providing music on various stages. We had an absolute blast at that event and we returned to Galtres for a second time last year.

Our efforts at Galtres led to an approach from the City of York Council who asked us to contribute to the annual Festival of the Rivers 2011. The council offered to help finance the rental of a barge – and that was exactly the break we’d been looking for; it meant we could test out the project without committing ourselves permanently.

It was was also a great way to do a feasibility study in which we gathered information from the 3,500 visitors who came in a period of just over three weeks. This information was crucial in helping us put together a business plan in preparation for the real thing.

We were also very lucky to be offered a mooring next to the Bonding Warehouse by Brian Clarke, owner of York Boat. Brian’s team gave us great practical help too – they even fitted a gangplank for us.

On top of all this, we were successful in our first Arts Council bid. It paid for our entire spring and summer programme of events last year, which included two concerts at the Grand Opera House in June when we tried to get the project out to a wider audience.

But it wasn’t until we ran the barge that we saw our real vision in action– and it couldn’t have gone better. Every gig was sold out by the end of the first week.

The range of acts was astounding – jazz, folk, world music, blues, singer-songwriter sessions, comedy, theatre, dance, cabaret, open mic – you name it, we did it. We demonstrated both the demand for this kind of venue and the fact that there’s no shortage of talent in our community.

Apart from the quality of the acts and the real creative buzz that built up around the barge, our biggest achievement was the fact that the barge was filled morning to night with people of every age and from every background.

By the end of the run we were all completely exhausted, and it was sad to see the barge go back to its owners at Goole Waterways Museum. We had hoped to re-hire the barge this year, but that wasn’t possible.

This temporary setback spurred us into thinking seriously about taking the plunge and buying our own barge sooner rather than later…

Which brings us to now.

At the moment we’re all working hard on our 2012 campaign launch ‘For Love and Money – Let’s Buy a Boat’. We’ve already secured a mooring between Bonding Warehouse and Skeldergate Bridge, thanks again to Brian Clarke; that has been offered to us for the long term and means we’re already over a major hurdle.

We’ve just met with City of York Council leader James Alexander and Sonja Crisp, cabinet member for leisure, culture and social inclusion, who are putting their support firmly behind the project.

They have also given practical help with planning and events. All we need now is the money to buy and renovate the barge.

We’re hoping to raise around £100,000. That will buy a barge and get it fully kitted out and operational by 2013. Our current plan is to buy an older barge and do the work on it with the help of the community.

We will be appealing for specific help with that once we’ve bought our barge. In the meantime, we’re trying to drum up sponsorship, ranging from small donations to larger investment as well as applying for any and every grant that might be able to help us move the project on.

We’ve been working on this almost full time for about three years. Other than minimal expenses, we’ve taken no payment. That can’t continue – so, as well as money for the barge we want to ensure that one of us can be paid enough to keep the momentum going and do all the necessary work to make the barge happen.

In the meantime, we’ve got our first fundraiser – at The Crescent WMC, on Saturday, February 11. It’s something of a hybrid event: part dance, part gig, and as it is just three days before Valentine’s Day, there will be loads of love-related stuff going on. Tickets via our website.

If you have read as far as this, you are exactly the person who we want to hear from. If the idea of the Arts Barge interests you, please contact us. We need supporters, ticket-buyers, volunteers, fundraisers and performers. We need the community – and the community needs the Arts Barge.

Marcia Mackey is a co-founder of the Arts Barge. The project’s other ‘skippers’ are: Christian Topman, Hannah West, Jane Veysey and Steve Blakeman. To contact the team, and for more details and regular updates on the project, visit www.theartsbargeproject.com where you can also order tickets for events.