30 Years of Helmsley Arts Centre

by Handy Mag
Published: Last Updated on

Arts for Everyone in Ryedale—and beyond!

The 2nd of May marks the 30th anniversary of the first performance at Helmsley Arts Centre, then The Old Meeting House, in 1993. “Once Upon a Time—An International Evening of Story-telling and Verse with Vayu Nadie, Martin Riley, and Peter Morgan” was the first performance with the audience invited to ‘Bring a Cushion for Comfort’ as the seats, still being the original pews, were rather solid!

Founder member and current HAC trustee Martin Vander Weyer recalls: “For that opening show we had an enthusiastic crowd and a bold programme. Having been shuttered up and unused for several years, the building was cold and uncomfortable, with hard pews, no loos and a borrowed electricity supply. But that was the night we moved off the drawing board and began to realise what the Old Meeting House—now the thriving, greatly loved, multipurpose Helmsley Arts Centre—could become”.

Today Helmsley Arts Centre provides a huge variety of opportunities to be creative and to experience high quality arts and culture with the building a constant hive of activity. Community is the core of HAC with the 1812 Theatre Company and 1812 Youth Theatre; volunteers; Youth Training programmes; HAC Singers; Ryedale Writers; Friday morning Cafe and many more community-based groups and activities.

Artistic Director, Natasha Jones, said: “It’s an incredible achievement to get to 30 years, and that’s all down to the incredible array of people who have dedicated their time and skills over the years. With the celebrations comes the sadness of losing one of HAC’s founder members, Jean Kershaw MBE, in January this year. Our celebrations will include Jean every step of the way and we’re delighted to be naming our auditorium ‘The Jean Kershaw Auditorium’ in May.

“More celebratory events include a sculpture commission for HAC’s garden by local artist Sarah Cawthray, a Grand Auction of Art, Wine and Promises in Duncombe Park and a “30 for 30” fundraising appeal, which will be launched at the start of May in the hopes of fundraising £30,000 in 3 months. We have no core funding and it’s imperative that we constantly fundraise to make sure we can stay open and provide creative opportunities and experiences for the next 30 years—and beyond!”

Keep an eye out for how you can get involved in the 30th Anniversary celebrations by heading to www.helmsleyarts.co.uk or HAC’s Summer 2023 brochure and looking for the 30 years logo!

The History of HAC

Helmsley’s Old Meeting House was built as a venue for Quaker meetings in 1812, but Quaker numbers in the town gradually diminished and in the 1840s the building was leased to the Primitive Methodists—who used it regularly until 1980, when it became disused. It was purchased from the Quakers in 1984 by the newly-formed Old Meeting House Trust, initially with a view to creating a chamber music venue as the home of the Helmsley Festival, the forerunner of the present Ryedale Festival.

The Old Meeting House Trust became a registered charity and was supported by grants from the Arts Council and Ryedale District Council. An Advisory Council of eminent figures in the arts was established and a feasibility study formed the basis of a development plan. A local architect, Tony Burns, drew up plans for a multi-purpose centre.

Before any changes were made to the building, and despite lack of facilities, the first performance took place on 2 May 1993. Support grew and an application for an Arts Council National Lottery grant was successfully submitted in 1995— one of the first in North Yorkshire. This funded the complete refurbishment and enlargement of the building.

The Arts Centre programme continued to go from strength to strength—until the night of 15 August 2000, when the Old Meeting House was ravaged by fire. But great voluntary efforts and generous local support ensured that the Arts Centre was rebuilt within 8 months, with improved technical equipment and even bigger artistic ambitions. Renamed Helmsley Arts Centre, it reopened on 27 April 2001. In 2006 the Old Meeting House Trust received a substantial legacy from Mrs Dorothy Morley, a Helmsley resident and longstanding Friend of the Arts Centre. This funded the addition of a scenery workshop and rehearsal room (the Dorothy Morley Room) at the west end of the building, opened on 19 October 2007.

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