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How Sunderland's cultural legacy lives on in transformation of historic city centre buildings

Sunderland has long been a city of cultural vibrancy and we can trace its creativity all the way back to the saints and monks of St Peter’s Church, one of the oldest churches in Britain which set a newstandard in art and design when it threw open its doors in 674 AD.

Wednesday, 4th May 2022, 1:21 pm

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From shipbuilding and glass making to art and theatre, Sunderland has always been a city of makers and the creative spirit and post-industrial resilience of generations has inspired the creative communities we see today.

In a bid to bring these communities and people together, historic buildings across the city are being brought back to life to preserve the city’s heritage and create modern and stimulating environments for creatives to thrive.

Two local entrepreneurs, Vincent Todd and Mark Burns Cassell, are at the heart of Sunderland’s creative community and are the duo behind Norfolk Street Arts, a community interest company that supports the development of artists and curators through facilitating spaces and mentoring.

Vincent Todd (Director of Norfolk Street Arts) at Hills Arts Centre, Sunderland.

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Together, they have transformed the former Hills Bookshop on Waterloo Place - which was located at the site between 1929 and 2006 - into a mixed-use facility named Hills Arts Centre, which they hope will boost the city’s cultural economy, support local artists and bring vibrancy to Sunderland’s High Street.

The 5,600 sq ft centre includes an art gallery, artist studios, multiple creative businesses and Grinder Coffee Central.

Vincent said: “We’ve restored Hills to its former glory, taking inspiration from its style in the 60s when it was painted black with bold white lettering. We hope the centre will help to develop new audiences for the exhibiting artists and having Grinder Coffee on the ground floor will help to increase footfall and make the art gallery more appealing and accessible to people who wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable walking into a gallery.”

The arts centre renovation was funded by Vincent and Mark - who are both fully committed to ensuring creatives can play a key role in the city’s recovery from the impact of Covid-19 – and project work from artists in the gallery will be funded by the Arts Council.

Zoe Breeze (Director of Breeze Creatives) at their gallery at The Athenaeum, Sunderland. Photos by Elliot Nichol

The duo has also acquired 35 West Sunniside, a Grade II-listed building which they are currently renovating to create more artists’ studios.

Vincent added: “Period buildings have good size rooms for creative businesses and more character. 35 West is beautiful yet wonky, and we’re exposing the original features and bringing them back up to scratch.

“I think Sunderland is a great city and the council are responsive and will actually support your project, and that support is really important. It’s a fantastic city for emerging new creatives. Things are developing and there’s real opportunity here.”

Another organisation breathing life back into Sunderland’s historic buildings is Breeze Creatives, which restored The Athenaeum building on Fawcett Street during the pandemic to create a new studio and gallery complex that is set to welcome artists from across the globe.

Hills Arts Centre, Sunderland.

Made possible through support and partnerships with Sunderland City Council, Sunderland Culture, Creative Culture Trust CIO and Social Investment Business, Breeze Creatives rehomed Abject Gallery in the Athenaeum building, and will open its doors to the public with an exhibition curated by internationally recognised artist Graham Dolphin.

Alongside this a number of artists’ studios were formed to create workspace for multi-disciplinary artists and professionals. Breeze is also partnering with the University of Sunderland, to provide graduate studio provision and exhibition and curatorial opportunities for their students.

Zoe Breeze, Director of Breeze Creatives, said: “The Atheneum was always meant to be a place for exchange of ideas as it was originally opened by the Literary and Philosophical Society, this exchange of ideas is still as relevant today as it was in 1841 and we are proud to have culturally preserved that platform for debate, conversation and exhibition.

“We have worked with Sunderland Culture to organise some upcoming shows for the main gallery and we also have our curator space and educational spaces. It’s been a breath of fresh air to work in Sunderland and I’m looking forward to giving something back to the city.”

The Athenaeum, Sunderland.

Sunderland Culture was founded through a partnership between Sunderland City Council, University of Sunderland and Sunderland Music, Arts and Culture Trust to bring together the city’s most important cultural assets and activities and realise the city’s creative potential.

Sunderland Culture delivers the creative programme in Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens, National Glass Centre, Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Arts Centre Washington and The Fire Station, as well as with communities across the city. One of the programmes it has spearheaded called ‘Unlock the City’ has been pivotal in supporting the development of creative industries in the city – including supporting artists and organisations to reimagine new, creative uses for historic buildings.

Laura Brewis, producer for Artist Development and Creative Industries at Sunderland Culture said: “We are excited to see creative industries flourishing in the city and the repurposing of the city’s amazing historic buildings for creative use.

"Through our Unlock the City programme, which supports artists and creative businesses in the city, we have supported creatives to access space and develop creative projects in historic buildings, and it’s wonderful to see organisations we have helped like Pop Recs, Breeze Creatives and Norfolk Street Arts going from strength to strength.

"These developments show that Sunderland is a great place to be a creative and will encourage more people to stay andbase their creative businesses in the city.”

Patrick Melia, chief executive of Sunderland City Council, said: “Sunderland is fortunate to have a number of beautiful historic buildings, and it’s fantastic to see these wonderful old structures being used by our city’s creatives.

Zoe Breeze (Director of Breeze Creatives) at their gallery at The Athenaeum, Sunderland.

“As a council, we are committed to preserving our heritage to ensure the cultural benefits are enjoyed for years to come, and we have been proud to support these fantastic organisations, as well as the restoration of buildings such as the Elephant Tea Rooms, Mackie’s Corner and 170-175 High Street West, which have all significantly enhanced our city centre in recent months.”

As well as the restoration of these fantastic historic city centre buildings, Sunderland’s Minster quarter is also taking shape, from the £18million redevelopment of the 1907 Edwardian Fire Station into a bar, restaurant, studios and state-of-the-art auditorium for live music and performing arts, to the plans for Culture House, a multi-purpose venue that will stand at the heart of the Riverside Sunderland development combining a city library with spaces for exhibitions, arts and crafts, media and more.

Hills Arts Centre, Sunderland.