Barnsley has had to put up with more than its fair share of false dawns over the years.
In 2002, as part of a multi-million renaissance programme under the banner ‘Rethinking Barnsley’, there were grand ambitions to transform the ex-mining town into a thriving 21st century metropolis.
These revolved around the idea of remodelling Barnsley on the lines of a “walled Tuscan hill town”, dreamt up by acclaimed architect Will Alsop. This masterplan included a proposed halo, a large projection of light circling the town, that would become a future symbol of South Yorkshire.
Critics said it was pie in the sky and sadly so it proved. There was further disappointment seven years ago when Barnsley failed to make the final shortlist for the first UK City of Culture.
The idea of reimagining Barnsley as a kind of Mediterranean-style village was perhaps overly ambitious at best, but what it did was start a discussion about its future and from this Barnsley Council developed a framework to create a thriving 21st-century market town.
You don’t have to walk far to see evidence of the £120m retail-led scheme taking shape with work being carried out apace. But high street brands alone can’t transform a town’s fortunes, something Barnsley’s political leaders appear to have grasped.
Back in the 1930s George Orwell criticised the amount of money lavished on the Town Hall yet it remains a striking landmark that is now home to the £4.3m Experience Barnsley Museum, which has proved hugely popular since opening its doors in 2013.
This whole area with its colourful flower beds, the impressive Garden Fountain and Nigel Hall’s imposing steel sculpture, is a match for most town centre public spaces.
Another crucial piece in the regeneration jigsaw is The Civic, one of Barnsley’s most historic venues but which has also proved troublesome in recent times.
It reopened in 2009 following an £19m redevelopment having spent more than a decade closed after slipping into decline. However, it fell foul of two unexpected events – the cost of essential structural work was far higher than had been anticipated, which coincided with the financial crash, meaning there was no extra cash to finish the job.
So when it finally reopened a third of the building was left finished and remains unused. This effectively divided The Civic in two – the historic front of the building which now consists of offices and the modern extension at the back which is home to a gallery and theatre space.
Across the road work is continuing to revamp the famous Barnsley Market, with a new futuristic library and a restaurant and leisure development also in the pipeline. Like much of the town it is a work in progress, but the fact there is progress is in itself cause for optimism.
The Civic is now run by an independent arts charity which today launches a £5m fundraising campaign to help it become a ‘world class destination for the arts’ by 2023, when Barnsley’s regeneration plans are due to be completed.
It has the backing of notable hometown figures like Sir Michael Parkinson and Ian McMillan, and Helen Ball, The Civic’s chief executive, believes the building can once again become a focal point for art and entertainment. “There are significant regeneration plans in place for the town centre so it’s a real opportunity for us to connect to new audiences and be the final piece in that jigsaw,” she says.
The renovation plans include connecting the old and new sections of the building which would involve moving the bar, box office and foyer back and restoring the Victorian facade.
It’s hoped a large chunk of the money will come from Lottery funding but they will also have to raise a significant sum through public donations and the local business community. Ball admits it’s “an ambitious and challenging” project but believes the affinity so many have with The Civic will help galvanise support. “We need to reconnect people with the building and the fundraising campaign is all about helping build that enthusiasm.
“There’s a real love for the arts in Barnsley which goes back a long way to the days of the mining industry and I think we have an opportunity to give people back a venue which was once at the centre of their evening entertainment.”
The arts charity which runs The Civic has garnered praise for its art programmes and exhibitions since taking over in 2008, but until the whole building is being utilised it’s never going to be able to maximise its potential.
Which is why Ball believes this campaign is so important. “For Barnsley’s regeneration to be successful it needs something that sets it apart. It’s wonderful to think that there’ll be all sorts of businesses coming to the town that employ people. But if the model is just a copy of what happens elsewhere and you have chain restaurants you can find elsewhere, I don’t think that’s going to encourage enough people to come here.
“You’ve got to have something that’s unique to Barnsley and we have that here. We can be part of this independent element in the town and champion the warmth there is here. Without that it could just become another commercial centre like any other on the M1 that you might call into. That’s why we want to be a key part of Barnsley’s visitor economy and also help shift the perception of the town itself.”
The old whippets and flat cap image, misguided as it is, still persists in some quarters. However, it is being challenged and the town can take inspiration from the exciting regeneration taking place in Hull, where art and culture are very much a driving force.
In many regards Barnsley punches above its weight when it comes to the arts – as well as The Civic and the Experience Barnsley Museum, there’s the popular Cooper Gallery which has featured exhibitions on everyone from Ashley Jackson to Pablo Picasso.
The acclaimed sculptor Graham Ibbeson was born in the town and has lived there most of his life. He believes there’s a renewed sense of optimism. “Barnsley’s changing, there’s more restaurants, it’s more vibrant and it’s moving forward.”
He thinks art and culture can have a big part to play in the town’s future. “It’s not bread and butter and it’s not food for the table, but it is food for the soul. It allows people to participate and see a different view of the world.
“Change is in the air here and eventually it will bring more artists, more writers and more creatives because the atmosphere will be right and ripe.”
To find out more go to www.barnsleycivic.co.uk
The story of Barnsley’s Civic
The original Civic was built as a public hall by Charles Harvey in 1877.
In 1962 it became Barnsley Civic Theatre, seating 800 people and attracting some of the biggest names in showbusiness, with the likes of Charlie Williams and Ken Dodd regular performers there.
The Theatre closed in 1998 due to increasing maintenance problems and financial difficulties and remained shut for just over 10 years.
Redevelopment of Barnsley Civic Theatre then became a focal point of a regeneration initiative called Rethinking Barnsley. In 2009 the remodelled building, which includes a gallery and performance space, reopened to the public.
The new £5m #Connect campaign hopes to transform The Civic into a cultural destination by 2023.