An ambitious bid has been launched to establish a new flagship cultural attraction in Sunderland following a call out to LEPs across the north of England from the £15m Northern Cultural Regeneration Fund.


The Wearside-based ‘National Centre for Imagination’ (NCI) was chosen from a strong pool of funding bids that came through to the North East LEP and aims to focus on young people’s creativity and imagination.

If successful the Centre will also include an institute of performing arts.

Andrew Hodgson, Chair of the North East LEP, said: “We received a very impressive set of bids to put forward for potential funding from the Northern Cultural Regeneration Fund.

“The entries we received clearly demonstrated the scale and ambition of emerging cultural projects right across the North East. The National Centre for Imagination particularly demonstrated a strong fit with the criteria set out by DCMS to create a lasting legacy of cultural regeneration.”

The two key goals of the fund are to:
• Encourage sustainable cultural and creative regeneration in the North of England
• Benefit areas of the North of England that have historically had low levels of cultural and creative investment.

Keith Merrin, Chief Executive of Sunderland Culture, the organisation behind the proposal and Sunderland’s bid to become City of Culture 2021, said the centre would unleash the imaginations of young people and stimulate their inventiveness.

“If we are successful in securing this funding, the National Centre for Imagination will be the headquarters of Inventors, the globally-successful programme devised by Sunderland-born artist, designer and inventor Dominic Wilcox. The NCI will also be home to DigiLab, where children and young people will have the opportunity to use emerging digital technologies to learn new skills and develop their ideas,” said Keith.

Plans include a provision for the upper floor of the NCI to be devoted to the University of Sunderland’s performing and creative arts provision, with the university working with leading practitioners and providers in the region.

“Having a stimulating, inspirational learning and development space for a range of cultural disciplines on the upper floor will help cement Sunderland’s place on the national, as well as regional, cultural map,” said Keith.

“It’s another stepping stone in raising the profile and image of the city’s overall cultural offer and further making the case for Sunderland to be UK City of Culture in 2021.”

Sunderland’s bid for £3m towards the £5m cost of the building is now in competition against ten other towns and cities bidding for part of the NCRF pot. It is understood up to four projects will be successful in their bids, with a decision due in March next year.

The NCRF fund was set up to ensure a lasting legacy for the Great Exhibition of the North, which will be held in Newcastle and Gateshead next summer. The £5 million government-funded exhibition will showcase the best of Northern art, design and innovation. The fund is also anticipated to pave the way for future investment in the Northern Powerhouse.

The NCI would be owned and operated by Sunderland Culture Ltd, the joint venture company established by Sunderland City Council, University of Sunderland and Sunderland Music, Arts and Culture Trust to deliver and manage Sunderland’s major cultural venues. Since its inception just over a year ago Sunderland Culture has attracted over £3.5m in new investment into the city for cultural activity over the coming four years.


Sunderland is celebrating after taking a huge step forward in its bid to become the next UK City of Culture 2021, making it through to the next stage of the competition.

Sunderland has made it to the final five in the hotly-contested competition and will now battle it out against other shortlisted cities, Coventry, Paisley, Stoke-On-Trent and Swansea. The bid, which was submitted at the end of April, was assessed by judges from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and they announced [this morning], that the city had made it to the final stage.

The team is now working on Sunderland’s second stage bid, which will be submitted in September, before the overall winner is announced in December.

Rebecca Ball, director of Sunderland 2021, said: “This is fantastic news for the city and we couldn’t have done it without the support from the people of Sunderland and the North East. It is down to their support and hard work that we have made it this far.”

She added: “It is a huge achievement to get to this stage of what has been an extremely competitive process. We are delighted to have come this far, but we don’t have time to be complacent; we are very much in it to win it and there is much to be done to prepare for the next stage of the competition.

“We wish all of the other shortlisted places the very best of luck as they develop their bids over the next few months.  The first stage bid submission was the culmination of months and months of hard work, so every single place that has thrown their hat in the ring deserves credit.”

The UK City of Culture title is designed to use culture as a catalyst for economic and social regeneration and to raise the profile of arts and creativity. It also helps cities develop a broader arts and culture sector, as well as attract increased business investment and boost tourism.

Winning City of Culture status could deliver a multi-million-pound boost to Sunderland. This year has seen 2017’s UK City of Culture Hull see £1billion in investment since winning the title in 2013. It is estimated Hull’s economy will see a £60million rise in this year alone.

Councillor Paul Watson, leader of Sunderland City Council, said: “Sunderland has a unique energy and ambition, making it the perfect contender for UK City of Culture. From the New Wear Crossing, to the Vaux site development; from the regeneration of our seafront to the repurposing of buildings like the old Fire Station to prepare it for a new future, the city is undergoing unprecedented change, and this investment in infrastructure will be perfectly underpinned by a year of cultural celebration. Regardless of whether we win or lose, we have gained so much from this process.”

If Sunderland was to win, the benefits would last long beyond 2021, creating jobs and tourism opportunities throughout the area.

Shirley Atkinson, the University of Sunderland’s vice-chancellor, added: “The competition has the power to absolutely transform Sunderland’s destiny.  It will change the future for the city and the people who live and work here as well as those who visit.  A win for Sunderland would be a win for the whole of the North East.”

Paul Callaghan of the MAC Trust said: “Confidence in Sunderland has never been higher.  As a city, we are brimming with a pride and passion that runs in our veins.  Like so many people from Sunderland, I am immensely proud of our city and I do think we have a great chance of bringing this accolade to Sunderland in 2021.

“Reaching the final of this competition is absolutely incredible, and is huge testament to the Sunderland 2021 team, all of those who have worked alongside them to develop the first-stage bid, and most importantly, to the people of Sunderland and the North East, whose enthusiasm has shone through since we announced our intention to go for this title.

“We’ll need more of the same to ensure we are front of mind when the judges come to select a winning city, so we’ll celebrate that we have been shortlisted today, and the hard work will begin again tomorrow.”

Sunderland declared its intention to bid in the early part of 2016. The bid was written by a team from Sunderland, Music, Arts and Culture (MAC) Trust, the University of Sunderland and Sunderland City Council, who have since formally come together as Sunderland Culture, a company set up to oversee the bid, run major city attractions and deliver large-scale cultural projects in the city.  It will also raise the profile of the city’s arts provision and manage programming for the city’s cultural sector.

Keith Merrin, chief executive of Sunderland Culture said: “Making it this far in such a tough competition gives our city renewed confidence, and I think we can be incredibly proud of what we have achieved.

“We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but winning this title would put Sunderland firmly in the cultural spotlight, kick-starting a period of growth and creating a calendar of exciting cultural and artistic events, the Sunderland 2021 team is going to be working really hard as we prepare for the final stage submission in September.”


SUNDERLAND’s cultural credentials have received a multi-million-pound boost today, after being backed with a cash injection from Arts Council England.

Just months after it was formed, Sunderland Culture, a company set up to advance the city’s cultural development, has been granted £2million from the Arts Council, after receiving National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) status. The decision will plough cash into the city’s cultural facilities, with the funding representing a significant increase in Arts Council support to the city.

It’s the second investment announcement today for Sunderland, which has also won a further £175k, to create a new exhibition space for the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art at the University of Sunderland’s National Glass Centre.  It means the iconic gallery – which is now part of the university’s arts provision – moves from its previous base in the city library.

Keith Merrin, chief executive of Sunderland Culture, which was launched in March this year, said: “This is the second occasion we have had cause to celebrate, having already secured £1.25million from the Great Places fund, which will really elevate the city’s reputation as a hotbed for creative talent.

“There really is a sense in Sunderland that we are building towards a future in which culture will be at the absolute heart of the city’s economic and social development. We are becoming a poster child for how arts can reinvigorate a city and bring about hugely positive change, and funding support like this really will help us to further the momentum we have already established.”

The funding, which will be pumped into the organisation over a four-year period is another welcome boost to Sunderland’s UK City of Culture Bid, which will assess the city’s capacity to deliver a year-long programme capable of bringing about major regeneration.

Mr Merrin added: “Of course this is great news in the context of our City of Culture bid. This backing really could prepare the ground for a successful year in 2021, ensuring we have the venues and capabilities to host a huge year of celebration. However, win or lose, I think we can now be confident that the future for the city is very bright, and that culture will be front and centre in the regeneration of Sunderland.  The impact of the City of Culture competition really will leave a lasting legacy.”

Graeme Thompson, who is chair of Sunderland Culture, said: “This is a tremendous achievement for our city, and for an organisation that – despite its relative infancy – is already bringing about a genuine step change in the way we are driving culture-led regeneration.

“Sunderland has a rich cultural story, and venues of national and international significance. This recognition from Arts Council England means we are finally able to start punching our weight in collaboration with partners across the city. It’s an exciting milestone which will help shape a new narrative for the city over the coming years.”

Sunderland Culture was formed thanks to a partnership between the Music Arts and Culture (MAC) Trust, Sunderland City Council and the University of Sunderland to deliver major projects such as the City of Culture bid and bring together the main cultural venues of the partners.

Through ‘joined up’ working, it is expected that the company could increase the volume and strength of bids Sunderland makes for support from arts and cultural funds, which will help to improve the city’s cultural offer and bring more jobs to the city.

An announcement is expected from the Department of Culture Media and Sport over the next few days about whether Sunderland’s City of Culture bid has been shortlisted to go through to the next stage of the competition.

To find out more about Sunderland Culture, visit


A NEW company established to manage and develop Sunderland’s cultural venues is celebrating after securing £1.25m of funding.

The grant from The Great Place Scheme is a huge early success for Sunderland Culture, the new company set up to run major city attractions and venues.

The city will be one of 16 pilot areas for the Great Place Scheme, jointly funded over three years by Arts Council England (ACE) and Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), to put arts, culture and heritage at the heart of communities.

Sunderland Culture’s Chief Executive Keith Merrin was thrilled at the news: “To have such significant success in attracting new investment to Sunderland just weeks after being formed is hugely satisfying and encouraging.

“It says a great deal about the faith and trust that the scheme’s partners already have in us that they’ve chosen us to help pilot a major new national project. The funding is great news for Sunderland Culture, but also great news for the people of the city.”

Leader of Sunderland City Council, Coun Paul Watson, added: “I am delighted that Sunderland has been awarded this funding. It demonstrates that the vision and investment of the city council with our partners University of Sunderland and the MAC Trust in setting up Sunderland Culture is paying off in bringing new investment to the city and new opportunities for our communities. It also lays the foundations for our ambition for Sunderland to be City of Culture in 2021.”

As well as managing and operating venues in the city, Sunderland Culture will deliver large-scale projects like the current bid to be UK City of Culture in 2021, The Great Place Scheme, and also raise the profile of the city’s arts provision.

The funding announcement comes only weeks after ACE revealed it was investing £6m toward the building of a new £8.2m auditorium adjacent to the MAC’S £3.6m redevelopment of the Fire Station, and the city was awarded one of only ten Heritage Action Zones by Historic England to bring Old Sunderland and the area around Fawcett Street and High Street back to life. Other major recent cultural investments into the city have included the redevelopments of Hylton Castle and Roker Lighthouse, and the Cultural Spring arts programme.

Over £4m of National Lottery funding has been awarded for Great Place Schemes in Sunderland, County Durham and the Tees Valley. Ivor Crowther, Head of HLF North East, said: “From inspiring landscapes and memories of communities built on industry, to emerging art scenes and landmarks that have existed for centuries – the diversity of North East culture is incredible. Supported by over £4m of National Lottery investment, our pride in that diversity is the starting point for unlocking the benefits culture has for economies, heritage and, of course, people.”

Keith explained how the new funds will be used in Sunderland: “The £1.25m investment will deliver real impact in areas across the whole city working in partnership with communities and local organisations on initiatives to boost the creative economy, health and well being, community cohesion and opportunities for young people.”

He continued: “It’s an amazing time for arts and culture in Sunderland. This latest investment reinforces the momentum that is being built and the faith that national funders now have in the partnership of organisations and people leading arts and culture in the city.

“The process of bidding for UK City of Culture in 2021 has been invaluable and helped us to define key opportunities where culture can make a real difference to the lives of people in this city.

“Great Place has given us a stepping stone to achieve this between now and 2021,” he said.

Rebecca Ball, Project Director for Sunderland’s 2021 bid, said: “This is such wonderful news and keeps the momentum building. It’s further evidence of Sunderland’s cultural renaissance and there’s a ‘living legacy’ that is developing even before we’ve submitted our first-round bid. We have an ambitious ten-year vision and successes such as this help us create that vision, but also give us the confidence to continually aim higher.

“I think there’s an appreciation of what we’re trying to do here and that the city’s cultural sector acts as one and can be trusted to deliver major projects.”


A unique approach to managing and developing cultural venues has been unveiled in Sunderland.

A new company has been set up to run major city attractions including National Glass Centre and the Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens.  The new venture – which will also oversee Sunderland’s bid for UK City of Culture in 2021 – has been hailed as an innovative model for cultural leadership.

Sunderland Culture has been formed by the University of Sunderland, the city council and Sunderland Music Arts and Culture (MAC) Trust which is developing a new cultural quarter behind the Sunderland Empire.

The company will manage and operate major cultural venues owned by the three partners, and develop and deliver large-scale cultural projects. It will also raise the profile of the city’s arts provision and manage programming for the city’s cultural sector.

Board directors from the three partner organisations have been joined by five independent board members to govern the activities of the new venture.

The newly-appointed independent trustees are: David Roberts from Manchester-based igloo regeneration; Andrew MacKay, director of the Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Trust in Cumbria; Annabel Turpin, chief executive of the ARC arts centre in Stockton; Iraa Kadchha, director of Sunderland-based RGB Media and Gillian Miller, regional director of the Association of Colleges.

They join six trustees appointed by the company’s founding partners. Representing Sunderland City Council are Fiona Brown, Executive Director of People Services and Coun John Kelly, Cabinet Member for Public Health, Wellness and Culture. Representing the MAC Trust are John Mowbray OBE, High Sheriff of Tyne and Wear and Paul Callaghan CBE, who is chair of the Leighton Group. Representing the university are chief operating officer Steve Knight and Graeme Thompson

Chief executive of Arts Council England Darren Henley welcomed the new company, which will pioneer a fresh approach to cultural provision: “Sunderland Culture is an innovative model for place-based cultural development and leadership.

“And it is good to see its establishment growing with the appointment of this experienced board. At the Arts Council we’re very keen to continue working in partnership with them, together with the independent culture and heritage organisations in the city, in support of the ambitious and exciting plans for culture in Sunderland over the next few years.”

The director of the university-owned National Glass Centre Keith Merrin will be the new company’s chief executive.

Keith said: “This new model for cultural support and governance is a first in the country and has attracted interest from arts and culture organisations across the UK. This is a very exciting period for the city.”

Graeme Thompson Pro Vice Chancellor at the University of Sunderland is the new company’s chair. He commented: “The establishment of the company and recruitment of such a strong board of directors marks a step-change in the artistic and cultural life of the city. The company will build on the excellent work done by the Sunderland Cultural Partnership and provide strong leadership and a voice for the city’s expanding arts sector.

“The company will generate income through its venues and related activities. It will also serve as a central vehicle for fundraising and will bid to access funds from a range of sources.”

The culture company will also receive funding from its three founding partners and aims to attract millions of pounds of investment to the city over the next few years.