THE man behind the rise of a dance agency into one of northern England’s leading creative lights is busy getting into the swing of his new role at Barnsley’s Civic.
Anthony Baker spent almost a decade with Dance City - the Newcastle-based Arts Council-funded charity described as the north east’s ‘leading development organisation for dance’ - and developed a reputation for hands-on work with community classes, dance education and supporting local artists as joint chief executive and artistic director.
He’s hoping to put Barnsley on the map in a similar way, as he begins life as chief executive of the Hanson Street gallery and events space.
The 47-year-old, though, is already fully aware of where the borough is and where it can be.
“I lived in Barnsley while I was a student at Bretton Hall, so I’d have been there from 18 to 21,” said Anthony, who studied theatre design at the Grade II*-listed West Bretton college.
“It was an amazing place to go to study.
“Barnsley now is quite different to how it was in the 1990s, but I’ve always had an affection for it having lived here and gained an understanding of the town.
“I’m from the north-east, but have lived down south so my accent has dwindled a bit - but I’ve got no interest in working in London.
“I’ve always wanted to live and work in the north.”
Anthony - who took some dance classes as a young man, but saw his first job after a master’s degree in the Lowry Theatre’s ticket office - left a role with Freedom Festival in Hull to come to Barnsley.
He said the opportunity to play a part in the town centre regeneration was too good to pass up - with the Civic, set to see its historic Eldon Street entrance restored, able to become the ‘cultural heartbeat of the town’.
“The investment into the town centre, and the aspiration, from the local authority is extraordinary.
“That’s why it’s such an exciting opportunity.
“Literally, the geographical position of the building is a huge help with regards the Glass Works.
“It really is extraordinary for a town like Barnsley - other towns are looking quite enviously.
“I came to visit before my interview, and I was astonished - it wasn’t even finished at that point.”
He takes over from Helen Ball who’s spearheaded the Civic’s £7.2m restoration project, announced last January shortly before the pandemic delayed plans.
Three unused lower floors - totalling 22,000sq ft of space - are due to be developed, with private apartments, a new 150-seat theatre and the removal of the balcony facing onto Mandela Gardens all key features.
The vast work also includes a £1.6m facelift as part of Historic England’s ‘Heritage Action Zone’ on Eldon Street.
Since the Civic reopened in 2009, visitor numbers have become much healthier, as has the growing number of community groups and partners that use the space.
Anthony, two weeks into his role and looking to move to a home in Kingstone, said he hoped to have an update on the work by Christmas.
“It’s been an amazing job, from where it was to where it is now,” said Anthony.
“And it’s an amazing point to start - standing on the shoulders of giants, as they say.
“But the capital development is not the only part - the redevelopment is only as important as being able to engage people in new ways.
“It’s important to be able to provide a programme and community outreach work that’s suitable and gets people inspired - transforming the building will help that.”