Last week I was one of many people who spent the evening finding out more about the planned Swindon Museum and Art Gallery (SMAG) proposal.
The Phoenix Theatre at New College played host to a room full of local businesses and residents keen to listen to a range of speakers - from the leader of the Council, the architect who designed the building itself and members of the board of trustees - who all stated why housing SMAG in a new building would add value to our town and be a much needed cultural boost to the area.
There was a slight air of tension in the room at the start of the evening in light of SMAG director Hadrian Ellory-van Dekker’s resignation, with a few attendees highlighting concerns over the £5 million input from the Borough Council as well
However questions from the public were swiftly, reassuringly and honestly dealt with by Robert Hiscox, the chair of the trustee board, and David Renard, the leader of the Council and trustee board members.
SMAG is being built on Council owned land, removing the requirement to buy a new plot and a new director will be in post as soon as possible. During the evening, there was also an honest recognition from the board of trustees that their communication with the public had not been as good as it could’ve been up until now.
There is no doubting the economic benefits that a signature piece of architecture can do for Swindon - just look at what the Guggenheim has done for Bilbao!
The figures quoted by the board of trustees suggest that every pound spent on a cultural centre would provide three pounds in economic return. For some this may be a challenge to visualise but there have been numerous examples nationally (a bit closer to home than Bilbao) which have done wonders for the local economy.
Similar large infrastructure builds including the Lightbox in Woking, the Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth and the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff show that landmark architectural projects are akin to modern ‘cathedrals’, attracting entrepreneurial ‘worshipers’ that help to regenerate large town and city centre areas.
The perception of Swindon (rightly or wrongly) is poor.
As a result, a number of place marketing projects such as Switch on to Swindon have launched in order to tackle the negative perception some people may have of the town.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing benefits of SMAG, often referred to by the employers, is how increasing Swindon’s cultural offering would help skills retention and recruitment of staff inter-regionally.
Talent is hard to retain in Swindon because of its image.
Wrongly, in my view, Swindon is not considered a desirable place to live and work, and my hope is that SMAG would be a catalyst to help mend and repair that image and make the town stand out from its competition.
With a huge selection of fantastic businesses in the area we need to provide a distinctive social and cultural offering to match that of our neighbouring towns and cities in order to ensure that we are retaining talent and attracting new talent to the area.
For someone who is often quite sceptical by nature, the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery is something that I can only see as overwhelmingly positive. A cultural corridor - from Regent Circus past the Wyvern, the museum and art gallery and then to new Kimmerfields development before the train station - would finally address the regeneration issue in the town centre. And in doing so metaphorically moving the appeal of Swindon as a place to live and work from League One up to the Championship or above!
Unfortunately the question still looms, will the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery ever be built?
The answer is: we hope so but unfortunately don’t know. It’s a £22 million project with just over £6 million from the Council and the LEP, £10 million is resting on Heritage Lottery Fund application but a gap of £5 million needs to be filled. The proposal will rely heavily on private investors, fund raising and a bit of good fortune to plug the shortfall. I will be keeping my fingers crossed that the money will be found and Swindon will have something to be proud of right in the heart of the town.
To find out more visit Friends of Swindon Museum and Art Gallery.