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 heating and water 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 eight 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 by the Duke of York on 19 October 2007
Helmsley Arts Centre is now a thriving performance venue for theatre, music, dance, talks, cinema and live broadcasts, plus exhibitions, classes and a range of creative activities for children. The management of the Arts Centre, initially entirely voluntary, has gradually been professionalised, but the success of the project continues to depend on a large group of volunteer staff and participants, and on the wider support and enthusiasm of our rural community.
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