Swindon hasn’t exactly got the best name for itself. It is often unfairly derided and dismissed by outsiders as a hotpotch of bad architecture and grim living, but a new vision and sustained marketing campaign is going to change negative outlooks according to borough council leader David Renard.
He said all will be revealed at the council’s cabinet on 9 September: “The report to members will give the detail but essentially it is about creating a sustainable vision for the town. We need a plan for the whole of Swindon over the next 15 years. It’s a town that we should all be proud of but there’s a lot of work to do to change people’s perceptions.”
Part of the campaign is to make Swindon a cultural hub to visitors from around the world. Robert Hiscox, founder of the insurance empire and a noted art collector, who lives close by, has been involved with Swindon’s ambitious £20 million project to replace the museum and art gallery in Old Town.
It is home to what experts rate as one of the most important collections of 20th Century British Art and includes works by Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Henry Moore, LS Lowry and Maggi Hambling. There is also a notable ceramics collection.
The proposed new gallery, to be built on the car parks in front of the Wyvern Theatre, will be the centrepiece of a ‘cultural quarter,’ complemented by restaurants and bars, and a new performance venue.
Coun Renard added: “Robert has done a great deal already by putting his name to the project as he is hugely influential. But it’s not just Robert, this is a joint project between the council, private enterprise and the Arts Council; hopefully together we will achieve what we want.”
In an article published in The Telegraph on 18 August, Mr Hiscox said: “Swindon is not a tourist destination, but it has an art collection which everyone admires, a good ceramics collection, and a great science and engineering heritage. We want to combine all of those in the new museum and gallery.
“If, by the time I die, Swindon makes people think of culture instead of ugliness, I will be a happy man.”
An initial bid for £12.5 million to the Heritage Lottery Fund was turned down in May, but a refined application will be submitted in 2016. The council has pledged £5 million with the balance coming from benefactors. A visionary artistic director is now being sought to spearhead the project.
But Coun Renard believes cultural attractions are only one piece of the puzzle as the future engagement between the council and its citizens has to change. He said: “As local government budgets are cut, we need to come up with ways to work together to retain the facilities we need by bringing together the council, the private sector and voluntary and residents’ organisations.
“A good example of this is what happened to our leisure services which were transferred to GLL which is an independent trust. We had to cut our leisure budget but still managed to keep the facilities.
“Swindon is a town that has some very good stuff going for it. There are excellent facilities and parks, but people see the town centre and judge us by that. With regeneration schemes such as Regent Circus, the Kimmerfields development around the bus station as well as the cultural quarter, it is not an impossible task to finally change people’s perceptions.”
Pictured top, vision of the future, the Kimmerfields development around the bus station. Below, Robert Hiscox with the Lord Lieutenant of Wiltshire Sarah Rose Troughton at the JMW Turner exhibition in Swindon Art Gallery in October 2014