Against all the odds Darlington has a thriving arts scene

PUBLISHED: 15:20 11 February 2013 | UPDATED: 22:13 26 February 2013

Against all the odds Darlington has a thriving arts scene

Against all the odds Darlington has a thriving arts scene

Against all the odds one North East town has a thriving arts scene, as Chris Titley discovered

Darlington is best known for its engineering heritage. Bridges and railways are its most famous exports, both enabling people around the world to move more freely.

But the town has quite a free-thinking heritage as well. Among the writers with Darlington connections are the poets Ian Hamilton and Ralph Hodgson, and spy novelist Chapman Pincher. More recently League of Gentleman performer and Doctor Who writer Mark Gatiss, and comedian and actor Vic Reeves, have emerged from the town.

But Darlington has been harder hit than most by the economic doldrums and it did seem that the arts scene would be one of the victims. But in a hopeful turn of events, the artists themselves have rallied round.

Darlington Arts Centre, with its distinctive pyramid roof, was long a hub for the creative community and the townsfolk at large. One online review praised its great theatre and the diverse range of things to do there from painting in the arts studio to video and new media work.

But that work ended last year when the borough council closed it as part of a package of budget cuts.

Now though, theres a new arts hub in town. The Bridge Centre For Visual Arts opened last summer in a former pupil referral unit on Yarm Road, a phoenix rising from the old centres ashes.

It houses two publicly-funded projects that were displaced from the arts centre. Openart Studio welcomes anyone with an interest in exploring artistic activities. It receives funding from the primary care trust because these activities are known to enhance mood and reduce stress without recourse to medication.

The other is the Community Art Project, a council initiative which enables people with learning disabilities to try out painting, sculpting, pottery and the like under the guidance of professional tutors.

In the few months it has been open, the Bridge has become home to so much more. Here youll find the Press Gang Etching Group, calligraphy society the North East Scribes and the Darlington Media Group, made up of visual and media artists.

Bonnie Davies, who was made redundant as the councils arts education officer as part of the cuts, now runs the Openart Studio on a freelance basis. She has been hugely impressed by the way artists and tutors have come together to support the Bridge.

I had an idea that it would work, she said. To bring together a collective and talk to people Id known for many years, and for them to get on board its quite inspirational.

Theyre coming up with ideas independent of me, theyre knocking on doors, they are leaflet dropping, they are doing all the things they never needed to do before because the borough council did it. It is empowering.

Artists are investing their time, energy and creativity into the Bridge. They wouldnt be doing that if they didnt believe in it.
More and more people are asking about the Bridge. Weve hit the ground running, and without any exception everybody who has come here has been very impressed with the atmosphere of it.

The more compact size of the centre has encouraged interaction between the various users. So its breaking down some of the stereotypes about adults with learning disabilities, as indeed its breaking down stereotypes for adults with mild to moderate mental health issues.

And because the location is in the DL1 postcode a comparatively impoverished area of Darlington more people from that area are using it than went to the old arts centre.

Unlike the brand-new Bridge Centre, the Darlington Society Of Arts has a venerable heritage. Last year it celebrated its 90th anniversary with an exhibition at Richmond Station.

Were a thriving society at the moment, said chairman Sara MacIntosh. We cater from young artists to our oldest member who is 91.
Anticipating the closure of Darlington Arts Centre, the society decamped to Hummersknott School for its weekly meetings, which often include workshops and tutorials. So well sometimes have an outside speaker whos not a member of the society, sometimes well use our own members because theyre very able themselves. Gina Morton is probably our best known international member, she specialises in miniatures.

The arts society is part of a wider network, Sara explained. Everything from Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form Colleges artwork, displayed on the walls in the little streets off High Row, to the busy folk scene, concerts at the Dolphin Centre, shows at the Civic Theatre the list goes on.

Theyve revived a gallery at Crown Street Library, so youve got that, the Bridge, places in Darlington selling local crafts. The Art Shop is the hub its one of the best art shops in the North East.

Thanks to a link-up with Darlington Building Society, society members get to display their work in its fabulous gallery space on Tubwell Row.
So why is art thriving in Darlington? One reason is its location, Sara said. We have an outdoor group on Saturdays in the summer. Richmonds not far away, thats very picturesque. Its a big tourist area. There are links spreading out for people to find opportunities to exhibit their work.

In her 18 years living in the town, Sara has seen parts of the town redeveloped to be much more pleasing on the eye. The refurbishment of the parks, particularly South Park, have been marvellous enhancements.
The Market Square was also transformed from an ugly car park to a beautiful focal point for lots of outside events.

With art taking over from engineering, and the Bridge Centre following on from the bridge makers, it seems there is a lot to appreciate in Darlington these days.

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