Above, Tim Burrage, Trish Steinhardt, Hilary Scott and Toby Davies of TAR hand over the bid brochure, produced by Barton Willmore, to Donna Pentelow and Giorgio Framalicco of Reading Borough Council
TAR support for council bid
November 19, 2019
On November 18 Reading Borough Council's policy committee agreed to put in a bid for Reading Gaol.
The council released the following statement: 'Following discussion in the closed session of tonight’s Policy Committee meeting (18th Nov), the Council can now confirm that it intends to submit a bid to purchase the Reading Prison site.
'The disposal of the gaol site represents a once in a generation opportunity and the Council’s purchase would be the only certain mechanism to secure public access to the site and secure a cultural offer for Reading.
'The full details of the bid must remain confidential given the commercial and competitive nature of the bidding process however, the Council’s bid would be conditional on securing significant external public funds in order to manage the risk of taking ownership of this historic property.'
TAR chairman Melvin Benn said: “We are pleased the council has passed this resolution.
'However, our position has not changed - TAR will not bid against the council. What we have done is pass on our bid brochure to the council which may help its bid. This is full of information about how we would have turned the site into an arts hub, complete with a pop-up theatre, other performance space, museums, a hotel, digital hub, creative hub and more.'
'We have also included our list of supporters – from community members to businesses, organisations to official bodies - which TAR has built up over many years campaigning for a new arts hub in Reading, as well as official statements of support from the Arts Council and the University of Reading.
We hope the council is successful in its bid to the MoJ – and we will continue to help in any way we can.'
Oscar Wide scholar's support
August 7, 2019
An eminent Oscar Wilde scholar and academic has given "the strongest possible' support for TAR's plans for Reading Gaol.
The group's scheme includes a hope to celebrate Wilde's life with a museum and Oscar Wilde experience, as well as perhaps an archive of his work.
Professor Anne Varty of the Department of English at Royal Holloway University of London said: " As an Oscar Wilde scholar and academic I would like to give the strongest support possible to the TAR plans to develop the site of Reading Gaol as a hub for the creative and performing arts, and as an interactive site of literary and cultural heritage.
"Reading Gaol is a focus of literary and cultural importance for an international community of Wilde scholars, artists (in all media) responding to his recorded experiences, as well as for popular enthusiasts for the works and manifold reputations of Oscar Wilde.
"Wilde brought Reading Gaol to the attention of the wider public through his autobiographical work De Profundis, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, and two letters written to the Daily Chronicle after his release pleading for Prison Reform.
"His particular focus was the cruel treatment of children in the prison system, as he had witnessed it at Reading Gaol. These letters had an impact on legislation and contributed to the reform of the prison system in Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The site is of international significance for the greater understanding of penal systems in the UK through its direct representation in the writings of this major cultural figure.
"The plans for redevelopment by TAR would allow the historical, material site of Wilde’s experiences to be preserved and to enter a dynamic heritage culture. They would also further the rich potential of the arts to foster creative community building through education and the arts. The site would become a major cultural asset to Reading, its business communities and arts users in the region."
TAR press release
June 10, 2019
TAR (Theatre & Arts Reading) has formed a trust to potentially run the Reading Gaol site.
The Reading Gaol, Arts, Museum and Theatre Company, is currently before the Charities Commission and will oversee the running of the site if TAR can purchase it.
TAR continues to work behind the scenes - as it has done for the last six years and for the last two years on the Gaol site specifically - to prepare itself to bid for the site from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) when it finally goes on the market.
The directors of TAR also continue to talk to Reading Borough Council and other bodies as well as potential investors in the site – and are communicating with businesses in the newly formed Abbey BID Quarter, seeking their support.
After correspondence with previous Prisons Minister Rory Stewart – who allowed TAR access to the gaol site for an Arts Council-funded feasibility study – TAR has also made contact with the new minister Robert Buckland.
The feasibility study on the Gaol has not yet been released publicly – as TAR is shaping it further – and its Vision of Opportunities for the Gaol is being refreshed.
Said chairman of TAR Melvin Benn: “TAR is still committed to plans to turn the site into an arts/community facility that will benefit Reading residents and help boost the town’s reputation, regionally, nationally and internationally.”
Melvin Benn statement for Arts & Heritage Forum
March 27, 2019
Firstly, I would like to thank the Arts & Heritage Forum and Cllr Sarah Hacker for their support over the last few years.
I note that you have been concerned about the Prisons Minister’s response to Matt Rodda MP where Rory Stewart states Reading Gaol will be sold to the highest bidder.
TAR remains committed to its plans for the Gaol site as an arts hub - but this response was not a surprise. The site remains a complicated one in terms of any development of it.
Over the last few years we have had a continued dialogue with the Arts Council, Historic England and especially Reading Borough Council.
As you know, we announced last year that a trust was being formed to purchase and run the site. This trust, the Reading Gaol, Arts, Museum and Theatre Company, has been formed, and our lawyers are now in the process of submitting this to the Charities Commission for their approval.
In July last year we welcomed the passing of a motion proposal at the council’s policy committee that the council’s support and engagement in developing proposals for a charitable company limited by guarantee in partnership with TAR was endorsed - and a further report be brought back to the committee on progress in establishing such a charitable company and how the council might best support its objectives for the prison site going forward.
We have also welcomed that the council altered its outline planning brief for the site which originally said it ‘could’ be an arts hub to it ‘should’ be an arts hub.
Our feasibility study on the Gaol site carried out by architects Foster Wilson was most comprehensive and is currently being looked at by the Arts Council who paid for the study to be done. The Museum of London archaeological report will obviously have a bearing on plans for the Gaol, but we have not had sight of that yet. Therefore we cannot release our feasibility study publicly at the moment.
We also continue to talk to potential financial backers about investing in the site also.
We appreciate people would want to campaign that the Gaol be sold to a body that would ensure the site can actively benefit Reading residents and beyond - and the Reading Gaol, Arts, Museum and Theatre Company trust would do that.
If there was to be a petition we would ask that the message is something along the lines of “The people of Reading would urge the MoJ to dispose of the Reading Gaol site to an organisation which would secure its future as an arts hub with facilities that would benefit Reading residents”.
I welcome all feedback from you and feel free to give your oral or written views to Sally and Hilary of TAR tonight which they will relay back to me.
TAR report for 2018
December 21, 2018
We finished 2017 with support from The Oscar Wilde Society for our vision of turning Reading Gaol into an arts hub.
We began 2018 by going out and about and briefing stakeholders about our progress including the LEP, Reading UK and Reading Football club.
Meanwhile board members and our chairman Melvin Benn held talks with other interested parties. We had extensive coverage from press, radio and TV.
We also had a successful round-table meeting with ACE and got support for accessing the gaol from boss Darren Henley and SE boss Hedley Swain.
We contacted MP for Reading West Alok Sharma about being unable to get into Reading Gaol to do our ACE-funded feasibility study and he kindly arranged with Prisons Minister Rory Stewart to let us have access
In March we published our Vision of Opportunities, a document that revealed numerous ideas for the site including two theatres, a museum, an art gallery, restaurant and more.
In the summer our architects Foster Wilson finally got into the gaol along with TAR members and Sir Howard Panter and Dame Rosemary Squire from potential large theatre operators Trafalgar Entertainment.
The local Labour party published its manifesto which pledged to lobby the MoJ to turn the gaol into an arts hub.
In May we held a forum at the penta hotel with a panel of Melvin Benn, deputy council leader Tony Page and Miranda Laurence from Reading University. This was well attended – standing room only – and received national coverage from the press.
We also commissioned a project with Henley Business School students to work on how we took our aims forward and this resulted in a revealing report and a pledge that each year we would work with final-year students on TAR-related projects.
In July TAR chairman Melvin Benn hailed Reading Borough Council officers’ report to the policy committee endorsing TAR’s ‘Vision of Opportunities’ for the Reading Gaol site.
He has also praised that it will be put to the committee to approve RBC entering into plans to set up a charitable company with several partners to run the prison site. This was passed by the committee.
Talks had already begun with TAR lawyers Harrison Clark Rickerbys to set up this trust and the council was represented at these meetings.
Also in July Reading East MP Matt Rodda brought up in Parliament his support for TAR’s gaol project and asked that the Government get behind this.
The charitable objects for the company to be called Reading Gaol Arts, Museum and Theatre Company were drawn up. Financial plans were also worked on. The company was registered in November.
Also in November, Foster Wilson shared their first draft of the gaol feasibility report with TAR. This report also had input from Trafalgar Entertainment. Feedback is still being compiled before a summary can be circulated.
In the background all throughout 2018, TAR board members were meeting regularly with potential investors, the university and Reading Borough Council. We also had continued conversations with theatres, industry professionals and theatre companies up and down the country in order to ascertain what sort of venue(s) are most successful.
The latest news is that the council has had a pre-application from the MoJ, a move prior to putting the site on the market, and also received the draft feasibility study. Talks are ongoing and further developments will be realised early in 2019. We also hope to have another forum in the spring.
TAR remains committed to seeing a new theatre for Reading and we hope to see our plans leap ahead in the New Year.
Meanwhile we would like to thank all of you for your support and ongoing enthusiasm for our aims.
We would also like to thank our supporters Harrison Clark Rickerbys, penta hotel, Chris Barber, a Reading resident and owner of CB Food Solutions for advice, and Gareth Paine accountants.
You can also check our website www.theatrereading.co.uk.
Finally have a merry Christmas and a prosperous new Year. Let’s hope 2019 sees us still looking at the stars!
THE TAR BOARD
Melvin Benn, Tim Burrage, Sally Swift, Trish Steinhardt, Toby Davies. Executive secretary: Hilary Scott
Report to RBC policy committee
July 12 2018
TAR chairman welcomes council policy committee report
TAR chairman Melvin Benn has hailed Reading Borough Council (RBC) officers’ report to the policy committee endorsing TAR’s ‘Vision of Opportunities’ for the Reading Gaol site.
He has also praised that it will be put to the committee to approve RBC entering into plans to set up a charitable company with several partners to run the prison site.
Said Mr Benn: ‘We are delighted officers are recommending TAR’s Vision of Opportunities is welcomed and that we enter into developing the proposals for a charitable company to run the site in partnership.
‘The backing of Reading Borough Council for our plan to turn the Gaol site into a creative hub with two theatres is all-important for the town and we look forward to a positive collaboration.”
The policy committee meets on July 16.
TAR’s legal team from Harrison Clark Rickerbys is currently looking at how to put together the charitable company with several interested parties.
TAR’s ‘Vision of Opportunities’ was launched in May at a stakeholders’ forum at the penta hotel. It includes two theatres – one around 1450 seats operated by a commercial partner and a smaller theatre of up to 450 seats. Th cruciform building could be used for a café/bar/ restaurant, shop, box office and arts film theatre among other amenities.
Oscar Wilde would be celebrated with several facilities.
TAR’s architects Foster Wilson visited the prison last month to undertake a feasibility study funded by an Arts Council England (ACE) grant with input from the Trafalgar Entertainment Group (TEG) headed by Sir Howard Panter and Dame Rosemary Squire..
Study visit takes place
June 6 2018
The feasibility study visit to Reading Gaol by Foster Wilson architects on behalf of TAR took place on Wednesday, June 6.
Tim Foster and Jonathan Size of Foster Wilson were accompanied by two members of TAR plus joined later by representatives of Trafalgar Entertainment Group, including Sir Howard Panter.
The feasibility study, funded by Arts Council England, will be delivered in around three months.
TAR would like to thank Reading West MP Alok Sharma for contacting Minister of State for Justice Rory Stewart to obtain access to the Reading Gaol site for TAR.
Arts Council round table session 1-02-18
TAR chairman Melvin Benn and executive secretary Hilary Scott attended a round table session with Arts Council boss Darren Henley, SE head Hedley Swain and Sir John Madejski as well as other members of Reading arts community.
It was a good session, with ACE pledging to support Reading in the long term.
The gaol project had unanimous support as a theatre and also an arts hub.
ACE pledged to lobby the MoJ for access for TAR and also Government ministers in a bid to raise the profile of TAR's aims.
Oscar Wilde Society supports TAR's aims
DECEMBER 20 2017
The Oscar Wilde Society is happy to support the proposal to build a theatre on the site of Reading Gaol as part of a development of a new centre for leisure and the creative arts.
Wilde spent 18 months in the prison and suffered greatly from loneliness and physical hardship until, with the appointment of a new humanitarian governor, Major Nelson, he was allowed more books to read and writing materials enabling him to write his letter De Profundis, a major prose work.
His experiences as a prisoner enabled him, on his release, to write The Ballad of Reading Gaol, a masterpiece, and perhaps his best known poem.
For this reason alone, creating a centre including the prison cell C33 with which Oscar Wilde’s name is indelibly associated could hardly be more fitting.
Oscar Wilde was, above all, a man of the theatre. His four society plays – especially his brilliant comedy The Importance of Being Earnest – and his poetic drama Salomé are all frequently performed in both London and regional theatres, as well as internationally.
A year-long season of his plays is currently running at the Vaudeville Theatre in the Strand - the first time a London theatre has been dedicated to the work of one author for such a long period. A new theatre in the town with which he is associated is to be warmly welcomed.
Donald Mead, Chairman, The Oscar Wilde Society
TAR receives funding to do a study on Reading Gaol
NOVEMBER 10, 2017
Theatre & Arts Reading (TAR) is delighted to have received funding to do a feasibility study on the Reading Gaol site to ascertain if a new theatre could be built there.
Arts Council England (ACE) has given a £20,000 grant and with matched funding from the Trafalgar Entertainment Group and Festival Republic, TAR has been able to commission architects Foster Wilson to undertake the study.
This will look into where a theatre could go on the site in Forbury Road and possible uses for other buildings that are not protected within the gaol walls.
Chairman of TAR Melvin Benn said:” We are grateful to the Arts Council for the funding and very excited to be looking at the gaol site.
“The gaol would be a wonderful place to have a new theatre and possibly other arts facilities.”
Tim Foster of Foster Wilson said: "We are very excited to be undertaking this design study to look at the opportunity to develop a large-scale theatre for Reading, which will enhance the town’s cultural offer and create a home for high quality touring theatre."
Input into the study will also come from Trafalgar Entertainment – a theatre operator headed by Rosemary Squire, Sir Howard Panter and Greg Dyke.
Ms Squire said: "We’re excited by the possibilities presented by the gaol site. Reading has a lively arts scene and a thriving town centre with huge potential for a landmark theatre – we’re very much looking forward to bringing Trafalgar Entertainment Group’s expertise to the study."
Cllr Tony Page, lead member for Strategic Environment, Planning and Transport and deputy leader of Reading Borough Council, said: “The Council welcomes this study. It builds on the obvious potential seen first-hand by thousands of Reading people last year when the prison was open for theatrical performances, historic displays and wider cultural appreciation. I urge the Ministry of Justice to announce the much-delayed timetable for disposing of this historic site.”
The Ministry of Justice refused to comment. It is believed it will put the gaol site on the market next year.
Images courtesy of Chris Forsey
TAR awaiting report from council on expressions of interest
DECEMBER 5, 2016: Following a meeting in November with Reading Borough Council, TAR is awaiting a report on the results of the expressions of interest for a new theatre.
This is due early December and we will report back on the findings here.
TAR expression of interest submitted in bid for new theatre
SEPTEMBER 30, 2016: TAR has now submitted an Expression of Interest for the Delivery Partner to Provide a New Theatre to Reading through the council's e-tendering site.
The questions answered for this early exploratory process were all in line with TAR's vision which you can read here.
Other questions were answered with advice from the TAR board.
We have asked the council what happens next and what reporting process will take place.
If you haven't already done so, you can register to be kept up to date with TAR's activities here.
Notes from May 17, 2016, TAR forum to present vision document at pentahotel 6.30-7.30pm
MAY 17, 2016: Welcome from Tim Burrage who asked for free and frank comments and discussion.
Richard Stainthorp of the Cultural Partnership and ex councillor explained the OJEU process for everyone.
He asked specific questions about timings/potential partners/how it would work and TAR’s position.
Nigel Horton Baker of Reading UK CIC said he thought the theatre spec needs to be detailed and specific, the more specific the better. Were we basing our vision on an existing theatre?
TD replied that he had looked at other theatres and the Everyman was his favourite – it was doing well financially and the building was so creative you could do anything in it.
Dave Savage of Starmaker warned that theatre in the north is better supported than in the south. He cited the Mayflower in Southampton as a successful theatre built out of town. He later mentioned Reading and its traffic problems and wouldn’t an out of town site be better for theatre-goers? Most attendees seemed to favour town centre site.
Dave also asked if we’d done any research into how theatre would survive in the future, given that people were shunning the West End with prices over £100 for a seat, more people were watching live performances in cinemas a £10 a head – would the future see shows streamed to people’s homes?
NHB reiterated that point – he thought research needed to be done on what future theatre-goers actually want.
Ryzard Akita, a final year design student at the uni who is doing the TAR website, said until we went to him with project he had never heard of The Hexagon and neither had many of his contemporaries. He agreed a new theatre had to cast its net wide, and put on content younger audiences could relate to.
TB replied that it was an established fact The Hexagon did not have an artistic vision but a financial one.
DS asked what could be done to raise audience figures up from the 60 per cent they are at now.
Sally Swift replied that The Hexagon was sometimes not an “experience”.
TB said the new theatre would be just that, new. Not The Hexagon Mark 11. It would be an arts centre too.
DS said the title arts centre worried him – many agreed but believed it should be an arts centre too just not called that. Suzanne Stallard of arts charity jelly said theatre and arts working together in a new theatre would be fantastic – she already has done this through the jelly years and said it was a great and creative partnership.
There was then a lively discussion on rehearsal space – DS seemed to think there was no problem finding rehearsal space in Reading (Starmaker use a school) which was refuted by many of the group/company leaders there. Many also felt schools were not ideal for rehearsal space and a new theatre with plenty of space would be very welcome and much needed.
TD talked of Chapter Arts and how it worked and general agreement was theatre and arts needed to work together.
Mary Genis of CultureMix Arts said the days of arts groups getting funding were well over. They had to work for themselves – and realistically everyone agreed rehearsal space etc in the new theatre would and should not be free.
DS mentioned South Hill Park which was a theatre and arts centre and the funding cuts to it – he said we have to be careful our arts groups don’t disappear because of financial difficulties.
MG said damage had been done, it was a different world now. Stephen Cox of the Sainsbury Singers said they raise all cash themselves.
TB talked of the small window we have with Arts Council support and said this was the time to strike with a new theatre. He explained TAR kept in touch with the football club about their plans and was continuing to talk to developers in Reading.
He said if we don’t act now funding may disappear. He also explained that Arts Council saw our plan as the template for new theatres.
Matt Whitelock of Berzerk Productions repeated his wish that the council would fund arts more and he believed it was their duty – most in audience thought that an outdated view.
As the session wound up, attendees were reminded they had a sheet given to them for comments and an email address if they wished to email any thoughts.
Market consultation launched by RBC
JULY 30, 2016 The council has launched its preliminary market consultation on Friday, July 29 as a first step towards creating a large new performing arts venue which would eventually replace The Hexagon in Queen's Walk.
The purpose of the market consultation is to find out what interest there is in building and operating a new theatre to serve Reading and the wider region.
Reading Borough Council is prepared to supply the land but the partner would have to pay for the building.
This initial process is intended to give the council a better understanding of the proposal’s commercial attractiveness and financial viability and help shape future requirements and specifications