As a Swindon-based creative agency staffed by proud Swindonians and design junkies, Jazzbones are really excited by the proposal for a £22.5 million landmark museum and art gallery in the town centre.
Opinions are divided about where the new museum should be located – Swindon Borough Council favour a purpose-built statement building next to the Wyvern Theatre while some heritage campaigners have mooted the old GWR Carriage Works – but everybody agrees that a world class museum would not only fill a cultural gap, it would act as a catalyst for Swindon’s economic growth and urban regeneration.
Oft-cited examples of culture-led growth include the way Tate Modern has driven the regeneration of a previously dilapidated stretch of the Thames or the Guggenheim’s role in transforming Bilbao from an ailing industrial city into a tourist magnet. The fact that Tate Modern is housed in an old power station while the Guggenheim is a space-age design by Frank Gehry proves that metamorphoses or new builds can be equally successful!
At a bustling New College forum to discuss the Swindon Museum & Art Gallery’s Wyvern proposal, council leader David Renard argued that every pound invested in cultural projects generates a £3 pound return. While this is a national average and by no means guaranteed, museum investment clearly does have a positive knock-on effect, and not just in big cities like London and Bilbao. Colchester’s Firstsite and Margate’s Turner Contemporary are examples of contemporary art galleries in much smaller towns than Swindon that have swiftly become ‘go-to’ destinations. They also demonstrate that where visitor footfall increases around museums, other new businesses (restaurants, cafes, independent retailers, etc.) spring to life, bringing investment and jobs with them.
Perhaps the only thing missing from the Swindon debate is a more detailed conversation around what types of booty we could expect to see at SWAG (hey, we’re branding gurus, and Swindon Art Gallery is such a mouthful!). Clearly, a new museum would be an exciting facility to be enjoyed by the people of Swindon, but if you look at ‘cultural investment = urban regeneration’ success stories, the formula is invariably based on luring visitors from further afield, not just attracting the locals.
Yes, SWAG has to celebrate Swindon’s heritage, but you will struggle to attract out of towners with displays of local artefacts or galleries focused on local history. It is the ‘art’ in SWAG that will generate sustainable footfall. SWAG’s outstanding collection of 20th Century art (L.S. Lowry, Ben Nicholson, Lucian Freud, etc.) would form the basis of an outstanding permanent collection, but even fab permanent collections in popular tourist locations do not guarantee crowds. Anybody who’s enjoyed a Billy-no-mates afternoon amidst the permanent displays at the Holburne in Bath will testify to that fact.
The key to generating repeat business and all that means in terms of wider regeneration is putting on amazing temporary exhibitions. As Jazzbones always advises our clients, content is king! That makes SWAG’s quest to replace departed director Hadrian Ellory-van Dekker vital. It’s a search that might involve offering an eye-watering salary, but appointing a renowned director/curator could be the game-changer. SWAG needs a heavyweight figure who can spearhead the bid for lottery funds and sponsorship, and who boasts the know-how and the contacts to stage temporary exhibitions that will attract art lovers from all over Britain.
If we want to compete for business with local rivals like the Ashmolean in Oxford (currently showing the blockbuster exhibition From Degas to Picasso) then we need to be ambitious. Swindon won’t get a world class museum and town centre regeneration by being timid, so let’s really go for it!