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Farsley’s Sunny Bank Mills marks decade of transformation

2023 is a year of celebration at Sunny Bank Mills, the historic family-owned mill complex in Farsley.

Ten years ago cousins John and William Gaunt embarked on an ambitious programme of cultural regeneration, which has transformed the former textile mill into one of the largest and most successful cultural communities in Yorkshire.

It’s a renaissance which has been the catalyst for the regeneration of Farsley’s bustling village centre, with cafes, restaurants, a bookshop and other independents all benefiting from the work at Sunny Bank Mills.

In 2013 the Gaunts, the co-managing directors of the mill, made two key appointments to lead the cultural regeneration programme, creative director Jane Kay and heritage director Rachel Moaby. 

William Gaunt explained: “These appointments enabled us to develop and grow our arts and heritage programmes which have fostered the creative zeitgeist that has developed and flourished at the mill. We are very proud of our reputation as one of the most innovative and exciting cultural centres in the region.”

William Gaunt and Rachel Moaby with some historic objects from the archive.

The two cornerstones of  the cultural regeneration are the Art Gallery, which runs a rolling exhibition, events and engagement programme supporting regional artists and creatives, and the mill’s historic archive.

The archive is one of the most significant and substantial woven textile archives in the UK, which has received a substantial grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

These have been supplemented by 25 artists’ studios and, in recent years, the development of the Old Woollen, a 500-capacity events venue.

In the past 10 years, the gallery has hosted 75 exhibitions supporting over 1,000 artists and makers, and introduced creative events including a regular print fair, vintage fairs and a hugely successful Christmas market.

The Old Woollen has welcomed a host of household names including comedian Arthur Smith, broadcaster Gyles Brandreth, historian and television personality Lucy Worsley and writer and DJ Mark Radcliffe.

Sunny Bank Mills already had a strong artistic background as Yorkshire Television’s hugely popular series Emmerdale and Heartbeat were filmed there between 1988 and 2008. There are now 500,000 visits to the mill annually.

John Gaunt commented: “If I had been told those figures as projections 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have believed them. But thanks to an excellent team we have exceeded all expectations.”

William Gaunt added: “The growth of our cultural offering has been crucial to the sustainable development of the Mill so whilst we are maintaining our proud connection with the arts and heritage, we are doing this alongside the sustainable development of the mill complex, which means a delicate balancing act between commercial and cultural interests.

“We have recently welcomed our 100th business on site, with 400 new jobs created, but it is crucially important that we create an environment where people don’t just love to work, but also to play, live and learn.”

Both the Art Gallery and the Old Woollen, with their varied programmes, enable Sunny Bank to thrive as a proper community and not simply as a business centre.

“Together with our Archive, they are the beating heart of the mill,” added John.

Creative Director Jane Kay is ‘immensely proud’ of what has been achieved over the past 10 years.

“What started as a small independent pop-up gallery has developed into a fully curated independent gallery, shop, event and engagement programme providing artists and makers with spaces not only to exhibit and sell work but also to make it,” she added.

“Our diverse programme aims to make art accessible to everyone and demonstrate what art can be.

“Ones to Watch, our annual exhibition promoting emerging artists who are either from or study in Yorkshire, is also 10 this year, launching the creative careers of numerous artists, many of whom have returned to exhibit with us as established artists or gone onto success elsewhere.”

Sunny Bank’s cultural anniversary coincides with Leeds 2023, with the city showcasing its artistic and cultural strength.

Jane Kay added: “In these challenging post-Covid times, with the cost-of-living crisis and the war in Ukraine, the nourishing power of art and culture has never been so important. So Leeds 2023, our role within it and that of other arts organisation in Leeds is both timely and an amazing opportunity to celebrate the power of culture.”

Members of West Leeds SILC with Sunny Bank Mills’ Alison McMaster,

Heritage Director Rachel Moaby was proud of the development of Sunny Bank’s archive.

She said: “In a similar vein the last 10 years have seen an immense development in the archive; transforming it from little more than storage of Sunny Bank Mills’ history into an accredited archive. A team of volunteers has grown over the years and now number 20. 

“Committed to preserving, enhancing, and sharing the history and stories of the mill and its people, our volunteers are invaluable to our continued development.”

The national significance of the archive has been recognised by several grants from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Historic England, enabling valuable work on the collection and creating accessibility to as many people as possible.  

This has included the development of school workshops focused on the Industrial Revolution and World War 1 helping to share the unique collection and the stories of the people that worked here.

The latest funding has enabled Sunny Bank to carry out an on-line project called Weaving the Web in conjunction with the West Leeds Specialist Learning Centre, which has made our Archive much more accessible and inclusive.  The Weaving the Web project has developed a 360 inventory of the collection which showcases the collection with the newest technology.  

“The future of the collection is exciting and is a constant source of inspiration to all that step into the space,” Rachel added.

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