Artist aims to breathe new life into Sunderland's 'underused' Sunniside Quarter

An artist has saved two historic buildings from the hands of developers as his plans to create a city centre culture hub take shape.

By Katy.Wheeler
Saturday, 20 July, 2019, 06:00

Eighteen months ago, clay artist Mark Burns Cassell remortgaged his house to transform listed building, 31 Norfolk Street in Sunniside, into Community Interest Company MBC Arts and Wellbeing.

It’s a gamble that paid off with the Grade II-listed building – once a base for building societies in the then town, a house of temperance and even a location for a Toy Dolls video – becoming popular for its community arts workshops and studio space which fosters home-grown talent.

The MBC studio. Picture by Frank Reid

Now, his bid to retain Sunderland’s creative talent has taken a step forward after two neighbouring buildings on Norfolk Street went up for sale. Developers had expressed interest in buying No 28 and 29, once home to Team Wearside, and turning them into student accommodation.

Mark said: “We have a vision to create a cultural hub for the city and student accommodation just doesn’t fit with our vision for Norfolk Street, so when the sale price was dropped by 20% it was the perfect opportunity. It was fantastic to realise the vision we had for No 31 so quickly and we hope to continue that success here.

“Sunniside is an area which is unrecognised, underused and undervalued and we are hoping to make real transformative change.”

The buildings, which date back to the 1830s, are being stripped back to their original features and refurbished into a ground floor gallery space and studios which can house a number of artists.

Mark Burns Cassell in the developing MBC studio. Picture by Frank Reid

Mark said: “We engage with thousands of people through our arts education provision and many have complex needs. In particular, we are aware that there is a lack of spaces which are accessible for people with disabilities. As the buildings we’ve just taken on aren’t listed, we’ve been able to make them accessible with widened doorways, a ramp and ground floor toilets and been more creative with the interior.”

Through Arts Council England funding, the CIC has been able to provide residencies for artists with a Sunderland connection and give them paid commissions. It also offers a mentoring programme alongside its studios for rent.

Mark said: “We find that people have an excellent experience at university but then don’t feel equipped to set up their own practice, so they go to cities like Leeds and Newcastle. But we want to keep them here.”

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Although many studio spaces have been filled, five tenancies are currently available on 12 month contracts, at £100 a month, which offer studio space with 24-hour access, all bills included, WIFI and one-on-one mentoring sessions which support them to apply for grants in a bid to help artists become self sufficient.

The developing MBC studio at 29 Norfolk Street. Picture by Frank Reid

Another two artists will also benefit from a Sunderland Council and Arts Council England-funded project, in conjunction with MBC and neighbouring CIC Norfolk Street Arts, to offer two artists their own exhibition, for which they will be paid. Open calls will also take place for a further two artists in the coming weeks.

Mark added: “We want to realise the potential of Sunderland’s creative economy. It’s currently operating at 1.7% when the national average is 3.6%. There’s a hill to climb there, but we feel confident about the creative talent in the city and that we can make a difference to that figure.”

A number of free artists’ markets will be held in Norfolk Street with demos, stalls, open studios and have-a-go sessions. They will take place from 10am to 4pm on August 10, September 29 and December 7.

*To register interest in the artist opportunities and artist space available through MBC Arts and Wellbeing and Norfolk Street Arts visit https://www.mbcceramics.com/ . Or search for ‘MBC Arts Wellbeing CIC’ on Facebook. The site also features details of community workshops.

The new buildings will offer artists' space
The buildings in Norfolk Street, Sunniside
Mark Burns Cassell (right) with Vincent Todd from Norfolk Street Arts in the developing MBC studio. Picture by Frank Reid
The building is being stripped back to its original features