Doncaster has long shouldered an unwanted notoriety for failing children’s services, political corruption and industrial decline. To add to this unholy trinity of woes it was recently ranked 347 out of 354 local councils in England for participation in the arts.
But today, the copper edifice of a new £22 million arts centre was shimmering gently in the South Yorkshire rain – a defiant symbol of the town’s economic and cultural ambitions.
The new complex, Cast, which includes a 600-seat auditorium, a studio, dance and drama workshops has risen on the site of a derelict college car park at the heart of a £300 million development.
As well as changing external perceptions, the venue must help empower local people to engage in the arts, and is hoping to attract 80,000 visitors through its doors in the first 12 months.
Director Kully Thiarai, a protégé of Cultural Olympiad boss Ruth Mackenzie, said levels of cultural engagement may have been underestimated in the past.
“When you go out into the communities there are pockets of cultural activity but they are disparate and quietly invisible. Sometimes people don’t think they are taking part in a cultural activity if they have not gone to a theatre or a gallery. It costs money to come into town to buy tickets,” she said ahead of an open house weekend hoping to tempt locals across the threshold of their shiny new cultural citadel.
“People come in and go `wow’ this building is amazing – it is extraordinary. But we need to get the story out there. This is not a tiny little space stuck away in a corner. It has significance and ambition not just in the town but nationally and internationally,” added Ms Thiarai.
Councillor Bob Johnson said there had been remarkably little political rancour over the new venue, which replaces the old Civic theatre. It will receive council and Arts Council funding of £500,000 a year for the next three years despite the authority having had to shed hundreds of jobs and cut £118m from its budget.
The money has been found by going into partnership with a housing develop, he said. “There are many positives in Doncaster. Our Roman history pre-dates York and we have railways, racing, an airport and a wildlife park,” he said.