Only when it’s gone

Nigel Jenkins is worried about the future of Swansea’s Dylan Thomas cultural centre

Swansea is notorious, in the words of Joni Mitchell, for “not knowing what it’s got ’til it’s gone”. Now there are fears that the Dylan Thomas Centre, in the heart of the city’s maritime quarter, is poised to suffer the fate of the much lamented Mumbles railway.

There have always been rumours about the Centre’s prospects, but since late 2010 the whispers and murmurs have swirled disturbingly, fuelled by an apparent reluctance on the Council’s part, in spite of several opaque if not contradictory press releases, to come clean about their intentions for the building, its programme and its 22 members of staff.

I understand the latest version of ‘the plan’ is for the building to be taken over by the troubled University of Wales on 1 May. However, the extent to which it might remain purposefully a Dylan Thomas Centre – with the exhibition and literary programme intact – remains uncertain. Those involved in the changes that are undoubtedly underway in how the Centre should be run in the future should state their intentions clearly.

For the best part of 17 years, since it was opened by former United States President Jimmy Carter during the UK 1995 Year of Literature and Writing, the Centre has been at the heart of the burgeoning Dylan Thomas ‘industry’, said to be worth some £3.5 million a year to Swansea’s economy.

The Centre has a permanent exhibition about the life and work of Dylan Thomas, a bookshop, and is a venue for lectures and other events. Indeed, it has delivered a rolling programme of literary and artistic events unparalleled for its variety and excellence by any other arts venue in the United Kingdom. The Centre has celebrated the literatures of Wales, in addition to music, drama and the visual arts. It has attracted to Swansea a panoply of internationally renowned writers who, returning home, have burnished the renown of Swansea and Wales in all parts of the world.

Plans are currently being laid, locally and nationally, for celebrations of the one hundredth anniversary, in 2014, of the birth of Dylan Thomas, Swansea’s most famous son. The city is surely going to look a little bizarre, to put it mildly, in the eyes of the wider world if it is seen to have abandoned the Dylan Thomas Centre on the eve of this major national and international celebration.

If the Council is determined to unburden itself of the Dylan Thomas Centre, one possible way of doing so – if the current rumoured plan comes to naught – would be to invite interested parties to form a trust to run the Centre, in the same way as a trust was formed to run Swansea’s refurbished Leisure Centre. Among them would be many of the well over 200 writers, artists and long-time supporters of the Centre who have launched a petition in its support.

In the past the Dylan Thomas Centre has been run as a compartmentalised rather than as a unified concern. This means it has enormous, untapped potential. It needs the kind of coherent, imaginative vision that would be likely to flow from a group of dedicated and informed trustees, as is the case with all sorts of arts venues, from the Munster Literature Centre in Swansea’s twin city of Cork to the wonderfully vibrant Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff.

Nigel Jenkins is a poet and a lecturer at Swansea University. For further information, please contact Mabe Breeze (01792 428685 or 0789 1484169; English only) or Wyn Thomas (01792 898221 or 0777 1667046: Welsh and English).

4 thoughts on “Only when it’s gone

  1. More strength to this plan of Nigel’s to form a body of Trustees to run the Dylan Thomas. On a personal basis I have enjoyed the Centre’s programme and taken part, usually at the invitation of the now sadly departed Dave Woolley, in countless events since the place first opened in the mid 1990s.

    To lose the Centre’s focus (and probably most of its activities) as a cost cutting measure is incredibly short sighted. The place may never have the funding to become another Chapter but it can and should have a continuing life as a centre for literature.

  2. I agree with most of Nigel’s article – and above all the need to protect both the DT exhibition & the literature programme.
    However the proposal for a “trust” to take it over seems unrealistic as the Centre requires significant revenue funding to maintain the staff, programme & overheads;the very reason why CCS wants to transfer the responsibility to someone else. It is worth remembering that Chapter receives something in the region of £700k per year from the Arts Council. It seems a tad unlikely that either CCS or ACW have any spare revenue funding…

  3. Swansea Council has just received over £25m funding to regenerate Castle Ward, which takes in the Maritime Quarter where The Dylan Thomas Centre is situated. The Centre has not received ANY of this money. Also, The “Dylan Thomas Industry” is worth £3.5m annually to Swansea. The Dylan Thomas Centre costs a mere £400,000 per annum . . . . . do your sums and now ask Swansea Council WHY! WHY! and WHY! they are persisting in this senseless act of CULTURAL VANDALISM? Councillor Graham Thomas at The Civic Centre should be able to give you an answer. Call him.

  4. Cardiff is not the birth place of Dylan Thomas or the home of the National Literature Centre of Wales: Swansea is. Successful Trusts and CIOs are being profitably managed in other parts of Wales, with money for communities and arts coming from WAG: why not in Swansea? Why has the Centre been systematically run down? Why hasn’t the beautiful space around it been used for a stunning eatery and book lined wine bar, with the revenue pumped back into the Centre? Where is the vision that is needed to make the Centre a success? Someone wants the lovely river-side access, and someone will benefit. Why not the National Literature Centre of Wales?

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