Art and culture in the South Yorkshire town of Doncaster
PUBLISHED: 00:00 05 March 2019
How the arts scene is changing in this South Yorkshire town. Martin Pilkington reports
Think of Doncaster and your first thoughts may be its once great mining industry, the railway works, or perhaps the famous racecourse where the St Leger is run, the oldest (and longest) of Britain’s five classics. But what’s going on in the arts and culture there now is front and centre in the town.
The £22 million spent creating Cast Doncaster, the thriving theatre opened there in 2013, is evidence of the town’s commitment to the arts. There’s another flagship project underway now too: ‘The council is investing about £15 million into repurposing the (former) Girls’ High School, an Edwardian building whose original front will be retained, with new spaces behind it,’ says Neil McGregor, assistant manager (Art Exhibitions and Outreach) of Heritage Doncaster. ‘We’ll be moving in there in July 2020 when the museum, art gallery, central library and rail heritage centre occupy the new building. It’s a big commitment to the arts by the council.’
Doncaster also possesses Cusworth Hall, a beautiful Grade I listed structure that acts as museum of 18th century life, which is in contrast with the elegantly Modernist 1960s’ building the gallery and museum is quitting; the latter also due to be re-purposed. Cusworth Hall is only one – albeit probably the finest one – of Doncaster’s many fine Georgian structures. Another is The Point, home to ‘darts’ – Doncaster Community Arts. ‘The Point is a big old Georgian town-house in Doncaster town centre,’ explains Amy Archer-Williams, communications officer for the organisation, ‘and it provides a very flexible space with full disabled access, our own gallery to hold our exhibitions, a studio for things like dance workshops, and lots of rooms where a multitude of different art forms can be explored.’
However impressive the buildings, it’s the creative work going on within them that is making connections to people in the town, and making a difference to lives there, with Cast at the forefront. ‘We’re a multi-performance venue, so we have comedy, music contemporary dance, and a thriving local talent programme,’ says Sian Dudley, the theatre’s head of marketing communications. ‘And last year we had more than 100,000 people attend events here.’ They epitomise the ethos of inclusivity evident in other arts organisations here too: ‘We run activities for young people that include our youth theatre, and also have a large dementia-friendly programme with dementia-friendly cinema, and activities like singing and dancing, that’s growing well,’ Sian adds, ‘Through the year we do work with a range of hard-to-reach people including refugees, asylum seekers, and quite a bit of work with children with disabilities as well, and as a venue we try to give the gold standard in accessibility – we’re the only theatre in the UK to offer a fully-integrated BSL [British Sign Language] panto all the way through its run.’
The Point is equally involved in bringing art and culture to all. ‘We work with a diverse range of groups – families, young people, and adults including those with mental health issues and dementia,’ says Amy Archer-Williams. ‘One of our key activities is Creative Directions, which is a weekly visual arts workshop for adults living with mental health difficulties that can run from long-term conditions to, say, coping with loneliness.’ This April Creative Directions is due to run at two additional venues to connect with more people who will benefit from exploring art.
Making connections is clearly a concept close to the heart of Heritage Doncaster, much of its present work designed to explore subjects of great local significance. Its new building will house, for example, the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry Museum, a regiment closely linked to the town. And for the last four years it has there has been a project funded by the HLF looking at Doncaster’s involvement in the 1914-1918 war which runs to the end of this month. ‘It explores both the home front and the combatants from the town,’ says Neil McGregor. ‘There’s a lot of outreach in that, especially to do with collecting people’s stories and digitising them. And we also have Pit Sense, a two-year project funded by Esmée Fairburn, about the mining communities in Doncaster.’
Fittingly another exhibition running at the town’s museum now is actually called Connections. ‘It brings together 70 works, starting with the very first to enter our art collection, and connecting lots of different art works here in a variety of ways,’ says Neil. One of them is a fine picture of horses at the town’s racecourse, which these days is itself connected to the performing arts, acting as a major venue for rock bands and others. This summer Madness, Jess Glynne and James are some of the acts appearing there.
Art and culture can sometimes be projected as elitist, but in Doncaster those involved in these fields seem to have broken down that barrier. What Amy Archer-Williams says of darts apparently applies across the board: ‘We work with as many art forms as we can, as many people as we can, to make the arts accessible to everyone, making sure the people of Doncaster have access to art they can experience with family or friends or whoever they want to experience it with.’