Swindon's new Cultural Quarter - an £80m development by Swindon Council - will be the first thing visitors see when they step off the train. Sam Rackham explains why it will be worth every penny.
Swindon has a rich heritage and established arts and cultural offer, but its cultural infrastructure requires radical transformation. The current facilities are spread widely across the town and suffer from several weaknesses including inaccessibility, lack of visibility and poor condition.
Swindon benefits from a thriving community of creative businesses and practicing artists; hundreds of thousands of people attend and participate in arts activities every year. Swindon Borough Council decided to produce a strategy to deliver cultural infrastructure that meets communities’ aspirations and maximises the potential of its local arts, heritage, and culture. The Cultural Quarter emerged in response to this potential and the enthusiasm local people have for the town’s artistic life.
Approachable and accessible
The Cultural Quarter will transform the quality of Swindon’s cultural facilities by providing the best new buildings and public spaces. Supporting and promoting wider participation in the arts is fundamental to the scheme’s success, so the new facilities must be approachable, accessible, and serve the needs of various communities.
At the heart of the proposed plan is a high-quality replacement for the ageing Wyvern theatre. Doubling the current theatre’s size to 1200 seats will allow it to receive the very best touring productions, forming a key part of the new cultural offer. A new Dance Centre at the core of the Cultural Quarter will provide professional studios, facilities for therapy and recovery and spaces for student learning, and a dance and performance studio that will tens of thousands of townspeople to participate, exploring themselves and their professional potential. And a Media and Arts Production Centre will embrace the newest production facilities, providing the facilities for many organisations to continue their growth in digital. Three state of the art cinemas will show independent, mainstream and alternative film, giving a screening facility to the town’s screen industries cluster.
The Cultural Quarter will also feature a dramatic pavilion in the park in the Kimmerfields development. This will be a permanent home for the town’s significant 20th Century art collection, set in a public realm that will itself be a place for public art and outdoor performance.
Although Swindon is relatively prosperous, there are pockets of deprivation. The town’s cultural offer must meet the challenge of inclusivity if all its residents are to benefit from the opportunities this investment brings. The Quarter has been developed in close partnership with Swindon’s arts community to ensure it delivers the spaces they need to support a diverse participation.
The Cultural Quarter will make a tangible difference, contributing to the prosperity of its townspeople across communities. These projects will help to make Swindon’s cultural organisations more resilient by building fit-for-purpose facilities that allow them to grow and change, delivering a significant number of quality jobs and boosting the wider economy. It is estimated more than 850,000 people will visit the Cultural Quarter and its venues just one year into use, generating £35m and more than 1,300 jobs. The Quarter will also hold around 75,000 training, learning and engagement sessions annually.
This activity will help make the town centre more viable and give individuals more opportunity to learn, train and work in the creative and digital industries – it is crucial we retain talented people and enable locals from all backgrounds to enter the sector. Sustainability is also important. There are plans to make this the UK’s first net zero carbon development of its type and an example of how culture can contribute positively to the environment. Swindon Council is preparing to become carbon neutral by 2030; the new Cultural Quarter firmly will aet us firmly on this path.
Swindon often suffers from the perception that it lacks a cultural offer. This is exacerbated by the poor visibility of existing arts organisations operating from facilities they have outgrown. By bringing these facilities to the heart of the town centre, cultural life will become its visible focus.
The site’s proximity to the railway station, new bus boulevard and proposed cycle route places in the middle of a sustainable transport network. For many visitors, the Cultural Quarter will be the first development they see when they arrive, supporting our ambition to focus renewal on culture and heritage.
Swindon Borough Council developed a vision and feasibility study with the help of DCA Consultants, Focus Consultants, Charcoalblue and Levitt Bernstein Architects. We partnered with local cultural organisations such as Swindon Dance, Create Studios, HQ Theatres and Prime Theatre to ensure facilities met the needs of their users and consulted stakeholders to stoke engagement. The whole development is likely to cost £80m; an investment prospectus has been produced to court both public and private funders.
The Cultural Quarter will be delivered in phases over the next 10 years. As we emerge from lockdown, we see more urgently than ever the need and opportunity of culture in regenerating our town. We believe the Cultural Quarter is a living response to the challenges of the last year and part of the short, medium and long-term solution. We’re ready.
Sam Rackham is Town Centre Project Development Manager at Swindon Borough Council