Heart of Swindon: Prime Theatre Artistic Director Mark Powell shares his thoughts on Swindon's growing cultural scene

By Ben Fitzgerald - 26 April 2019

CommunityOpinion and FeaturesExpert VoicesArts and Culture

Swindon’s arts scene is in good shape, in comparison to similar towns, thanks to Swindon Borough Council’s continued commitment to provide core funding - which in turn unlocks funding streams from a myriad of other sources.

This is further enhanced by the combined will of passionate providers of the arts who work closely together to pool skills and resources in a mutual support network.

Far from being a luxury in these tough times - there is growing recognition of the economic dividend that having a strong cultural offer brings in addition to the more obvious recreational and educational benefits.

So much so that the town’s business community has linked up with creative organisations in Swindon to launch a Cultural Development Partnership - an affiliation of organisations and individuals working together to secure funding and increase cultural engagement. 

The contribution of the arts sector to the economic health of the town is often overlooked, but it is something that prompted the local business community, represented by Business West, to approach Swindon Borough Council to offer their support.

Mark Powell, Artistic Director of Prime Theatre explained: “The business community, represented by Business West, approached the council saying that firms were having trouble persuading executives and their families to relocate to Swindon - saying that one of the factors was that ‘Swindon doesn’t have a cultural offer.’

“Slowly, slowly there’s a movement towards what’s called a cultural development partnership. This will be a combination of business, local authority and the arts, using their resources to make the best of Swindon. Because one of the challenges of the arts is that it can be lots of tiny things that people don’t know about. It’s going on but people don’t know about it.

"The good thing that’s coming out of that is a new organisation called the Creative Swindon Network.”

He explained that the creative network had been set up to prepare an application for a share of the £5m Arts Council fund called Creative People and Places. Recent changes to the allocation criteria mean that for the first time Swindon is eligible to apply.

“This was specifically for the towns that have the lowest quarter of engagement with the arts. It’s been going for about eight years but we didn’t previously qualify. This is where Swindon being average comes in; we weren’t in the bottom quarter, we were just above it. This year they changed it to the bottom third, so for the first time Swindon is now eligible.

“As part of the bid you have to give them a 10-year vision and Swindon didn’t have one at this point which is why all the work that Dale Heenan started has actually hit us at the right time (Swindon Borough Council’s cabinet member for the town centre who has proposed the creation of a new cultural hub to replace the Wyvern Theatre with a building that will also house the Museum and Art Gallery and the council offices). The timing and the vocal cross party support is great. We are not ready to apply for it at this time but it certainly means that we are going to be ready next time.”

As part of the bid, the Creative Swindon Network is calling on people in the town to answer an online survey, running until the end of May, to give them a say in what sort of cultural investment they would like to see.

"We will then be able to take what people say, mix it with the emerging plans about the cultural quarter and we suddenly get closer to having our 10 year strategy. So weirdly, I think the stars are aligning. I have to say that Dale Heenan’s plans are really exciting.

“The most important thing for Swindon will be high quality venues, because we are a little hindered by our heritage. The Wyvern opened in 1971with a 30-year lifespan so you can see why the building has started to deterioriate. Swindon Dance, a major dance organisation, is not in a purpose built building it's in a Victorian town hall, the museum is in a Georgian town house which has loads of problems with accessibility. This is a chance for us to take stock, talk to the community about what they feel they want or are missing. 

"Brilliantly the local authority, who are still a major funder at this point, are also taking stock of what’s possible. It might be one of those valuable moments in time where there is synergy for once. 

Because one of the other criticisms of Swindon is not that it’s static but that it is constantly moving but often in opposite directions. 

"I think the one thing that Swindon doesn’t have, is a sense of entitlement. I was here for three years and then I went to work in Salisbury, and what they did have was a clear sense of entitlement that arts and culture was for everyone. But I think we have to teach a sense of entitlement because that will help with our aspiration, academic achievement and the fact that yes, we do deserve a university. At this point I think we can design our future rather than let things happen to us. 

It does feel like something’s happening in Swindon Remarkably so."

To take part in the Creative Swindon Network survey click here

(at bit.ly/creativeswindon)

There will also be launch event as part of the Swindon Spring Festival: https://swindontheatres.co.uk/Online/tickets-creative-swindon-network-2019

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