BUSINESS MONTHLY: Sheffield fund backing new social arts project

Kat Cowens tries her hand at pottery making at The Art House, with tutor Sarah Vanic
Kat Cowens tries her hand at pottery making at The Art House, with tutor Sarah Vanic
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It’s been 18 years since the film The Full Monty told the story of six unemployed steelworkers who were forced to form a male striptease act.

It’s been 15 years since the Sheffield-based Key Fund stepped into the breach to help revitalise northern communities decimated by the collapse of coal and steel. It launched a loan fund – one of the first in the country – to support the development of social enterprises.

Its latest project is The Art House, a £1.5m revamp of a disused Grade II listed building on Backfields, next to St Matthews Church on Carver Street. It boasts the city’s largest community pottery, complete with art workshops, exhibition space and café and is set to open on October 20. Some £800,000 came from Europe and the Key Fund lent £40,000.

A charity and social enterprise, its vision is to open up pottery and art classes to all, in the belief that ‘creativity is the immune system of the mind.’ It will also offer courses to the homeless and those with mental health difficulties.

Graham Duncan is the social entrepreneur behind the project. The psychology graduate from Sheffield University, with a Masters in management, has lived in Sheffield for 15 years after running a London charity working with the homeless and drug users.

“There’s a certain sort of energy and discipline that goes along with enterprise which is just good for an organisation,” he said, “It keeps you focused on the customers, it’s a more dynamic way of working.”

Some 20 per cent of The Art House is dependent on grants, the rest relies on generating an income.

“Austerity means that there’s a massive hole in service provisions and a general feeling that the job that was needed, particularly around mental health, wasn’t being done.

“What we’re doing with the Art House is finding a more sustainable way of delivering services, treating people in a social enterprise rather than being passive recipients of service, and also trying to find a way of modelling how facilities can be delivered in the future, so it’s a bit of an experiment. It’s another way of doing things.”

Key Fund is unique in that all its investments go to those turned down by mainstream banks, targeting early-stage, high-risk organisations. However, all recipients must offer a positive social or environmental impact, whether it’s working with vulnerable people, troubled families, social reform, rehabilitation, community co-operatives or creating green energy or recycling schemes.

It has invested almost £40 million in hundreds of businesses across the North, which stimulate local economies by providing goods and services, jobs, training and work experience.

Graham said: “Sheffield is leading the social enterprise revolution, particularly in the arts sector.”