What is the Arts Barge Project?

It’s a community arts project right across performance genres including music, theatre and dance. A not-for-profit organisation that’s been running since 2008, we’ve put on hundreds of events since then including an annual festival called Riverside. We also put on a lot of whacky stuff and we’re definitely on the fringe – we’ve even had two young guys who do this amazing tutu wearing clog dancing act.

While the project has grown and become embedded in the York cultural calendar, the long term ambition is to create a new cultural centre for York on a heritage cargo barge.

How did the idea of the Arts Barge come about?

After the closure of its art centre in 1998, York no longer had an arts centre which, for a city this size, is quite unusual. It’s really been missed by the York community, so we [Marcia co-founded the project along with Christian Topman, Hannah West and Jane Veysey] were looking at how we could recreate a community arts venue with really high quality performances where the community can be involved in the making of arts and events.

There was no way that we could afford a city centre building and so a few of us who had experience of either living on barges or knew people living on barges, thought why not try and create a venue on a barge? It would give us the city centre location but be cheaper to build, cheaper to run and maintain, as well as being really unique. In the meantime, we’ve been using temporary venues around York.

How did you test the barge concept?

We hired a barge for a month to test how visible and attractive the barge would be and what type of customers we would get in 2011. It was enormously successful going from a standing start and no publicity, to over 4000 visitors. We couldn’t fit everyone on the barge in terms of audience and performers.

Have you bought a barge yet?

It’s been a long wait but in 2012 we finally bought the barge which will be the eventual home for the project. It’s a decommissioned cargo barge called the Selby Tony. Over 100 feet long and twenty feet wide, it finally arrived in York in February 2016 and is temporarily moored in York’s Foss Basin. We’re just about to put in a planning application for a permanent mooring. Assuming that’s successful, then we’ll be able to put in a large grant application to get the barge renovated to become a venue.

We hope the barge will seat 200 people but that is subject to planning and building regulations which will be plenty to sustain the business plan we put together. If the planning goes well, we hope to be able to open late in 2017.

How have you funded the project?

We’ve had two crowdfunders so far. The first one raised £5,000 and we’ve just done another which raised £23,000 in 40 days which will help towards getting the barge ready for its planning application. We used a new crowdfunding platform called Spacehive which is supported by Make It York and is specifically aimed at civic projects.

What problems have you hit along the way?

Because we’re all from an arts/humanities background, I don’t think we had fully grasped that, whatever you’re running, if you don’t consider it as a business first and foremost it won’t survive. We came to that realisation three years ago. When you’re more arts driven you’re focused on the artistic integrity of what you’re doing and the community input and the enjoyment, and as a happy by-product you sometimes make some money. It’s been a learning curve for us that money and profit are not dirty words. We have to be profitable in order to be sustainable and able to carry on what we’re doing. It doesn’t mean that profit overrides every other consideration, but it is important to sustain us.

Having to sit down and write a detailed business plan, something I would never have said I would be able to do before this, has been a fantastic exercise because you have to think about every aspect of what it is you’re trying to do and I’ve really enjoyed it. I’ve become a lot more interested in the business aspects than I had been originally.

One of the things we’re excited about is being part of the wider business community in York albeit a very different kind of business that is not out to make profit for us personally – none of us will be wealthy out of this. But we are creating something that is sustainable and great for York.

Do you need more help?

One of the major gaps that we have as an organisation is someone who has a particular knowledge of business planning and finance. We’ve patched it together ourselves but we don’t have anyone involved regularly – so if there is someone out there with that background and time on their hands? We’re always looking for volunteers to help with our festival and once the barge renovations get underway, we’ll be looking for joiners, electricians and anyone who is interested in the arts to come and help.

Are you worried about York’s flood problems?

Oddly, we’ve had lots of people asking what is the point of setting up a new venue in an area that floods? Well actually, York does flood and if it happens, you’re better off being in a barge where you can get straight back into the venue and open again.

To find out more, go to the Arts Barge.