By Marcia Mackey, Arts Barge Co-Founder
So, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats form a coalition to run York and, predictably enough, within minutes The Arts Barge Project comes to the fore as convenient shorthand for ‘Labour waste’. It doesn’t matter that they’re referring to Labour’s spending decisions and not to the work of our project. The impact is the same.
The Arts Barge Project, run successfully for over 5 years by 5 local volunteers for the benefit of our community, is condemned as an unnecessary ‘vanity’. Why? Because we were awarded £25,000 by a progressive Labour council for the development of a new, community arts business using Economic Infrastructure Funding – funding which opposing councillors know full well would never have been used for public services like roads, pavements, grit bins or any of the other cynical and spurious claims made for it in the press.
Forget the enormous amount of unpaid work, the commitment of the artists we’ve worked with and of the people in our community who keep supporting us year after year in the face of snail-pace progress through the planning process – not to mention the valuable shared experiences we know the project has given to thousands – apparently it was all just vanity. Yet not one Conservative or Liberal Democrat councillor has ever approached us directly to find out about the project: it appears we’ve been commercially (and therefore entirely) insignificant except as an example of Labour profligacy.
We’re clearly small enough fry for councillors to be confident that our project and the work we do doesn’t matter to the people they represent, including you. And we are still a small project. We don’t have a base – yet – and so our full community impact is still to be realised. But even with the very intermittent nature of our events, a cursory glance at our accounts shows that we’ve put over £40,000 in hard cash directly back into our own community – purchasing goods and equipment from local shops and businesses and paying local artists and other contributors who help make our events happen. It’s not earth-shattering but it’s not bad going for a group of volunteers putting on a couple of events a year. Just think what we could do with our own full-time venue.
The rest of our time is spent on fundraising and developing our wider community work and these are a few of examples of our scope:
· A free, annual community festival funded by Arts Council England and sponsorship from local business.
· Work with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and York CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) to establish art therapy services for Hard to Reach individuals and families.
· Developing work with HM Prison Full Sutton on broadening their use of music with inmates and offering music sessions to staff improve their quality of life in what has to be some of the most challenging work taking place in our community.
· Work in our schools and universities –working with peripatetic music staff to bring school-based music out into the community, getting music students from York St John’s onboard to support this. Working in partnership with the academic community at The University of York and getting children engaged in specific projects relating to narrative creativity.
· As part of our commitment to increasing awareness of the centrality of arts to community identity, we’ve worked with MA research students at The University of York examining the development of cultural heritage in our city. · On a practical level we provide professional support to anyone in our community wanting to establish their own social arts events and we have a store of community equipment available for free hire to anyone who needs it.
Our social aims are even more important in the light of the kind of attacks we’ve been subject to over the past few years and it’s worth restating them here:
We want to push community arts further up onto the city’s cultural agenda, emphasizing the importance of the arts for the people who live here, alongside purely commercial or tourist-focused activity. This is even more crucial with the inauguration of York’s new Destination Management Organisation ‘Make It York’ which will necessarily be focused on more commercially rewarding cultural activity.
We want to provide audiences with a roots-up model of the arts, where the performance you are watching or the activity you are taking part in has grown out of the community you belong to.
We want to offer a dedicated social arts space where the community can meet and showcase their creativity. We want this to be in a prominent and visible venue, accessible to as many residents, artists and visitors as possible.
We want to empower people to take part in, and to feel proud of, the creativity which emerges from their community.
We want this sense of pride and ownership to result in an enhanced quality of life and an enrichment of social and cultural values for as broad a base as possible within our community.
And we’re as committed to pursuing these aims as we ever were.
The council grant had the potential to encourage other (non-public) funding - not because of the financial value of the grant itself but because the grant demonstrated to other potential funders that the council was in support. So, ironically, the casual and repeated denigration of our reputation in the local media might already have cost us much more than the value of that grant.
The message to our detractors is this – we don’t want further direct council funding. You don’t even have to like us. But it’s time to stop the public sabotage of our project and allow us to see this work through, even if it has to be without your support.