Yorkshire charities reveal difficulties they face in bringing arts and culture to county's rural communities

Max May CEO of Rural Arts looking at a pair of Harlequin Hares by artist Annie Stothert from Goole made from papier mache on show at Rural Arts at Thirsk. Credit: Gary Longbottom
Max May CEO of Rural Arts looking at a pair of Harlequin Hares by artist Annie Stothert from Goole made from papier mache on show at Rural Arts at Thirsk. Credit: Gary Longbottom
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For decades it was where North Yorkshire's miscreants were handed their punishments by local Justices of the Peace.

But these days The Courthouse in the market town of Thirsk has an altogether more uplifting purpose after being taken over ten years ago for use as an arts centre with gallery, cafe and studios.

Max May, CEO of Thirsk Rural Arts, with a Raku pot made by Jan Lord in the Gallery at the Rural Arts. Credit: Gary Longbottom

Max May, CEO of Thirsk Rural Arts, with a Raku pot made by Jan Lord in the Gallery at the Rural Arts. Credit: Gary Longbottom

On the day when The Yorkshire Post comes to visit, the room where the JPs used to sit is in use for a children's craft and storytelling session and the old magistrates' bench sees lattes and cakes, rather than justice, dispensed to locals.

Almost every type of artistic endeavour one could imagine can be found at the headquarters of Rural Arts, a charity whose mission is delivering "inspiring and inclusive creative opportunities that enrich lives and connect communities".

In a studio at the back of the 19th century building a group of women are being shown how to make stylish-looking teapots as part of a ten-week course. Just inside the front door is a selection of work by local artists, some bringing their wares in from just around the corner.

Rural Arts' Spring brochure reveals details of more than 200 workshops, exhibitions, performances, screenings and events ranging from willow weaving cockerels to a show entitled 'Instagramming the Apocalypse'.

Gail Tucker from Thirsk making a teapot at a 'Get Hands on with clay' event at Rural Arts in Thirsk. Credit: Gary Longbottom

Gail Tucker from Thirsk making a teapot at a 'Get Hands on with clay' event at Rural Arts in Thirsk. Credit: Gary Longbottom

But arguably its biggest contribution to the community is the dozens of professional performances it arranges every year in village halls and other community venues around rural Yorkshire.

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The scheme means smaller communities that would never previously have been able to get high quality culture can access it for a fraction of the normal price.

2020 is due to be an exciting year for Rural Arts, which has been given £130,000 in capital funding to pay for improvements to the building, new equipment and an electric van to help bring people in England's largest county closer to the arts.

But it is set against a challenging backdrop where a lack of central and local funding for arts organisations outside the major towns and cities makes it ever more difficult to bring arts and culture to the region's more isolated communities.

One of just a few organisations in North Yorkshire to get funding from Arts Council England's National Portfolio, the £75,000 grant it gets each year compares with an annual turnover of £350,000.

The £30,000 a year Rural Arts used to be able to get from North Yorkshire's seven district councils and county council is now down to £3,500, leaving a bigger gap to make up with other funds and forcing it to shrink by two full-time equivalent staff.

Chief Executive Max May grew up in Ripon and Thirsk, so knows all too well the difficulty many people in North Yorkshire have in accessing high quality arts and culture.

The sheer size of England's largest county, combined with funding cuts which have disproportionately affected rural local authorities and the difficulty in attracting major sponsors, mean organisations like his face an uphill battle to compete with those in major cities.

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Along with 14 other groups, he has lobbied Arts Council England to address the imbalance between funding for rural organisations and their urban counterparts as part of the National Portfolio.

"We are very grateful for the support we get from the Arts Council but for organisations in rural areas, it is not as easy for us," Mr May, 28, tells The Yorkshire Post.

"By not funding rural organisations we are driving people towards urban areas, which leads to the decline of our rural communities. We are quite concerned about the impact that has.

"People are also driving to access culture. In our season we have just finished the average person travelled two miles. The carbon difference with travelling 20 miles to get into York or Leeds is huge.

"I grew up in North Yorkshire and didn't drive, I couldn't consume any culture. There is a real issue there.

"It is not just younger people, it is older people in North Yorkshire. Almost a third of people in North Yorkshire are over-65, so we are leaving behind lots of those people."

Mr May, who first joined Rural Arts as an intern and started his current role a year ago, will this year speak at the Rural Commission, the panel of experts chaired by the Dean of Ripon Cathedral attempting to tackle the decline of North Yorkshire’s most rural communities.

But his concerns are shared by Pete Toon, producer at West Yorkshire-based Mikron, whose work will be performed at nearly 130 venues around the region this year but tours on a narrowboat named Tyseley.

With its 50th anniversary approaching, its plans for 2020 include Atalanta Forever about the fight for women's football and the canine comedy A Dog's Tale set at Crufts. A recipient of £47,800 a year from Arts Council England, Mikron's local council support has dwindled since the start of austerity and its arts provision has been cut back as a result.

Mr Toon fears that vital infrastructure, meaning not just buildings but skilled and creative people, is being siphoned off towards urban postcodes.

"Our pedigree is hopefully there, we are 50 years old, we have seen lots of this already, we have been victims of funding cuts and funding booms and have gone through nearly six decades of this," he says. "The narrative for us is about ensuring rural arts provision doesn't get ignored."

A recent letter sent by 15 rural groups to Arts Council England sets out their case for greater recognition in the National Portfolio programme, which recognises excellence from dance to literature, and from museums to libraries.

Of the 828 organisations which receive funding, only 37 are in rural areas. Though 17.6 per cent of England's population lives in a rural setting, rural groups get only 2.5 per cent of the £1.6bn available.

Of that £40m, more than 40 per cent goes to just three organisations, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Snape Maltings and Glyndebourne Opera, meaning the average for the remaining rural groups is dwarfed by that of urban organisations in London, Manchester and Leeds.

Pete Massey, its Director Yorkshire and Northern Economy and Partnerships, said his organisation "wholeheartedly believes that rural communities should have access to brilliant cultural experiences just like anywhere else".

He said: "We fund a range of organisations as National Portfolio Organisations to enable this – from those based in the heart of these communities, those that tour brilliant work to rural areas, and those in cities and market towns that serve people across wide rural areas.

"Beyond our National Portfolio, we also fund Creative People and Places which invests in areas with low levels of cultural engagement and a third of these projects are based in rural communities. We also support organisations based in rural areas to get their work to more people more sustainably."