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‘A unique success story’: The grassroots history of Sheffield’s Leadmill

From its daytime café, artistic workspace and theatre workshops, to youth training, live gigs, and club nights, the Leadmill is not a performance venue with an ordinary history.

Hooton Tennis Club - The Leadmill - Tramlines 2015
Carolina Faruolo www.cfaruolo.com

The Leadmill, an icon of Sheffield’s arts and culture scene, is fighting eviction from the building’s landlords after 42 years of operation. The venue has played a crucial role in supporting and launching the careers of many of the city’s artists – Pulp, the Arctic Monkeys, and Richard Hawley have all graced its stage early in their careers – and this legacy has rightly taken centre stage in campaigns to halt the team’s eviction.

Alongside this vital musical heritage, however, the Leadmill also provides a crucial link to Sheffield’s radical and grassroots history. For much of its early history the Leadmill ran on a not-for-profit basis, providing cheap, varied, and accessible leisure through the day and night for the people of Sheffield. From its daytime café, artistic workspace and theatre workshops, to youth training, live gigs, and club nights, the Leadmill is not a performance venue with an ordinary history.

Opening the Leadmill

Housed in an abandoned flour mill near Sheffield city centre, the Leadmill originally opened its doors in May 1980 as a community arts space, hosting ale festivals, live theatre, craft fairs, and gigs. It was developed and renovated by a team of volunteers, who hoped to create a cultural space accessible to marginalised and unemployed people in the city. Many of those who volunteered, and later became involved with the cooperative team who ran the venue, were unemployed themselves. It was, from its inception, a venue created with and for the local community.

The Leadmill was established with a clear set of social aims, outlining its commitment to the local community. These aims were summarised in a 1983 funding application:

to encourage artistic activities, particularly those appealing to minority (non-profit making) cultural tastes; to provide a venue for popular music at a price affordable by the unemployed; and to encourage the use of the premises as a meeting place by the unemployed, ethnic minorities, and the general public.

However, despite initial success and clear demand from the public, the Leadmill closed its doors after only four months. The venue had been denied a licence to serve alcohol on the grounds that there was already a pub less than 50 yards away. In an era of increasing public drunkenness the city’s licensing magistrates were keen to avoid consolidating pubs and clubs too close together, but the rejection of an alcohol licence was a hammer blow to the venue’s plans. The bar would have provided a much-needed source of income.

What followed was a series of benefit gigs and applications to a range of funding bodies in an attempt to raise enough money to fully refurbish and reopen the venue. The Leadmill was able to reopen in September 1982 following the successful granting of an alcohol licence and had received over £100,000 in grants from the Arts Council, Sheffield City Council, South Yorkshire County Council, and the central government’s Manpower Services Commission (MSC).

Leadmill
Kevin Wells www.lifeisbetterstill.co.uk

Politics, money, and the arts in 1980s Britain

In 1990 the political theorist Patrick Seyd wrote of the ‘radical project’ of the Labour-controlled Sheffield City Council, one of a number of councils run by what became known as the new urban left. Marked by the election of David Blunkett as Labour leader of the council in 1980, this new era of the city’s politics was characterised by a commitment to local socialism and ‘socially beneficial’ services.

Cultural regeneration in particular was recognised early on as holding potential for Sheffield’s future. The council’s cultural policies were innovative in a number of ways, and distinct from other regeneration schemes in that they prioritised media and the local music scene as a key way of stimulating economic growth and socially beneficial spaces.

The reopening of the Leadmill in 1982 was the first of a number of arts projects that were launched with the help of council funding in the 1980s. The Anvil cinema reopened in 1983 following a buyout from the city council. Red Tape studios opened in 1986 and were the first municipally owned recording studios in the country, followed by Audio Visual Enterprise Centre in 1988.

Of course, Sheffield was not alone in publicly funding the arts. A significant number of arts venues opened in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many of which went on to receive public funding. However the venue’s output, including running a day-time café, club nights, and gigs, broadened the traditional remit of the arts centre. Stating the case for continued funding of the venue in 1985, Adrian Vinken, one of the venue’s founders and co-ordinators, argued:

The Leadmill is seen as a unique success story throughout the country. Its blend of popular entertainment for the young, real job creation, wide ranging arts and cultural programmes, educational activities and community services used by over 300,000, is seen by many as a model for future development in the arts and leisure field.

Community-driven leisure

However, the Leadmill remained financially precarious throughout the 1980s despite its visible success. The reason for this was twofold: the venue’s high running costs due to its long opening hours – often averaging 110 hours a week in comparison to the 20 hours of commercial leisure venues – and a continued commitment to a low pricing policy. In short, the Leadmill’s commitment to accessible leisure, and its rejection of commercial arts provision driven by profit alone, ensured both its popularity and its precariousness.

The venue’s social aims were what marked the Leadmill apart from other arts venues across the country and the mixture of youth leisure, popular music, and subsidised pricing policies created a unique cultural space. The venue organised fundraising gigs for striking miners, provided reduced entry for the unemployed and students, and ran many of its smaller arts and theatre events at a financial loss. The commercially successful arm of the venue – predominantly driven by gig and club nights – was used to subsidise these events, many of which were recognised by both the venue and its funders as culturally valuable to the city and its residents.

Alongside its commitment to accessible leisure, the venue developed a number of training schemes and educational programmes aimed at developing the skills of local unemployed youth. In a 1987 application for Urban Programme funding, Adrian Vinken argued that: “the young unemployed desperately need creative ways to direct their energies and build self-confidence if they are to avoid self-destructive feelings of worthlessness.”

Such programmes included theatre workshops, photography exhibitions run by local youth, and funded trips to other cultural venues including the BBC.

Postscript

Continued funding restraints meant that the venue’s commercial arm took the lead into the 1990s, but the grassroots and community-driven ethos that defined the Leadmill’s early years remained at its core. The Leadmill has continued to provide artistic workspace, retained its commitment to showcasing and supporting local talent, and is a cornerstone of the city’s independent arts and culture scene.

The Leadmill holds a special place in the hearts of many who live and have lived in Sheffield, as well as those who have passed through the city. Its status as an icon of the city’s live music and arts scene cannot be questioned and it has a long and rich history of community-driven leisure and culture that stands out in an increasingly commercialised world.

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