Swindon Borough Council can for the first time reveal exciting new plans to enable the town’s cultural sphere to grow and flourish.
At this month’s Cabinet meeting, councillors will be asked to approve a new approach which will see Swindon’s valuable art collections and artefacts given a secure and permanent future.
The plans involve rebuilding the ageing Wyvern Theatre with sufficient space for a new and permanent museum and art gallery. This rebuild could be partly funded by selling the Council’s Civic Offices on Euclid Street, potentially removing the need to apply for millions of pounds in grant funding.
In line with this ambition, and in a bid to engage younger generations, Cabinet will be asked to commit to a brand new Pledge, which states: ‘Every Child will be encouraged to visit the Council’s museums including the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery as a learning opportunity while they are at school.’
Cabinet will also be asked to agree to develop a touring exhibition that takes items from the collections on a tour of Swindon’s heritage and civic buildings such as the Civic Offices and the STEAM Museum.
Following the two unsuccessful bids to the Heritage Lottery Fund for £12m to build a new museum and art gallery on the Wyvern car park site, the Council has considered various options to see how the town’s art collections can be protected.
The Wyvern Theatre will need significant investment and refurbishment over the coming years as it is likely to reach the end of its life by 2027. A strategic decision is therefore being proposed which takes into account the future of both the Wyvern and the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery.
The Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) has already agreed a sum of £250,000 to enable the Council to complete a detailed redevelopment plan, over the next 12 months, for the area around the Wyvern, focussing on enhancing the cultural and community offering.
The intention is to replace the Wyvern Theatre with a new, larger theatre and include permanent community and civic facilities with a new museum and art gallery.
Councillor Dale Heenan, Swindon Borough Council’s Cabinet Member for the Town Centre, said: “As a new cabinet member, I am pleased to have overseen, over the last six months, approval for the Zurich’s new headquarters and the £270m Ski Slope at North Star. Nobody could have said that a year ago and now I want to solve the problem of the future of the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery.
“I believe art should be seen and Swindon has one of the best modern art collections in the country, yet most of it is in storage.
“I am therefore proposing an ambitious and realistic plan that councillors agree in principle to sell or redevelop the Civic Offices to help pay for a rebuild of the ageing Wyvern Theatre
“This new larger theatre would attract higher profile events and performers and include sufficient space to be a permanent home for our art collections and artefacts that will be financially sustainable. Imagine a single foyer: turn left for theatre, turn right for museum and art gallery.
“By taking a fresh look at what is best for our collections and artefacts, for local residents, for staff and for the Council, I believe this new approach is one that all local residents and politicians can enthusiastically get behind.
“This will take time to implement, so a series of pop-up exhibitions will be organised to showcase our art collections in civic and heritage buildings like the Central Library, STEAM and the Carriage Works.”
The collections are currently located at the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery on Bath Road in Old Town. Swindon MAG is owned and operated by the Council and houses a modern art collection of national importance, alongside historic artefacts of local significance.
But the Council wishes to bring the collection to a wider audience, conferring cultural and educational benefits to people right across the town.
Also, storing the art collections in the Old Town museum poses a number of problems. The building lacks any signage or striking feature that identifies it as a museum, its layout is inflexible and rigid and the rooms have limited access. It also requires high maintenance costs and the working conditions for staff are quite poor.
With such limited space, things such as school visits are difficult to accommodate. There isn’t much room for investment and commercial opportunities either. In recognition of this, capital works are proposed to improve the visitor experience at the existing museum and art gallery until such time as it is relocated into the new cultural quarter.
In the last year, Swindon MAG attracted only 14,000 visitors compared with around 90,000 at STEAM. It costs the Council £200,000 a year and the number of average visitors a day is only 55, with only one exhibition in the last four years seeing daily visitor numbers exceed 70.