It has been in the news for all the wrong reasons in recent times, but an art regeneration project is helping boost Rotherham’s image, as Chris Bond reports.
WHEN you think of artistic meccas, it’s fair to say that Rotherham is not the first place that springs to mind.
London or Paris, certainly. Leeds even. But Rotherham, surely not? Yet if you were to take a stroll around the town centre you might just stumble across a masterpiece by Rembrandt or Manet.
These aren’t originals, I hasten to add, instead they’re part of an urban art project in the town that has been slowly growing over the past four years.
Gallery Town was started back in 2011 by local businessmen and women who wanted to make Rotherham a more attractive place, not only for the people who live there but visitors, too.
The idea was to have works of art on display all over the town centre as a way of boosting its cultural image which would, at the same time, have a knock-on economic impact.
After initially securing a grant for 60 artworks, including copies of 20 famous paintings from national galleries and the same number from local artists and school children, the numbers have now swelled to over 100.
It has turned the town centre into an outdoor canvas and added a splash of colour to some of its streets and buildings.
It’s also a much-needed good news story for the South Yorkshire town which has found itself mired in negative headlines in recent years in the wake of the child abuse scandal, with revelations that 1,400 children were sexually exploited in Rotherham by gangs of men over a 16 year period.
The scandal has made headlines in the national Press and been hugely damaging to the image of what is a proud community.
It’s something that Gallery Town’s project manager, Ged Omar, is all too aware of and is why he believes projects like this are so important.
“Rotherham has had a lot of negative attention but there’s actually a lot of positivity in the town and this is something people feel part of,” he says.
The project is run as a not-for-profit organisation and Ged believes one of the reasons it has proved so popular is down to the fact it has grown organically and has been driven by local business and community leaders and entrepreneurs.
“It’s starting to generate a bit of noise and now we just want to make more people aware of it,” he says.
The project has been awarded £10,000 of National Lottery funding and attracted support from well known figures such as artist Pollyanna Pickering and former World Cup final referee Howard Webb, who has become the project’s patron.
“I believe creative arts has an important role to play in the nurturing of children’s aspirations and self-belief and any project that enhances this experience like Gallery Town has my backing,” says Webb.
Pickering is also full of praise for the regeneration project. “I feel I owe a great debt to my years at Rotherham Art School, where I began my art studies.
“This is a wonderful project, and I’m sure it will help to inspire a new generation of creative talent in the area.”
Gallery Town has grown steadily and Ged is keen to continue this positive momentum. “We have big plans for the next six months, with a planned re-branding set to take place later this year.
“The project aims to drive the economy through cultural regeneration in Rotherham, ultimately making it a better place to live for everybody.”
It’s not just about making the town a more pleasant place to live in, though, it’s also about changing the perceptions other people have.
“You expect to find this kind of thing in Leeds or Manchester, but perhaps not in Rotherham. But I think if people come here and have a look around they will be pleasantly surprised.”