Skip to main content

Re-imagining Cardiff’s Old Library

In February we launched the College’s 75th birthday at a special public engagement event to share our plans for the Old Library. Principal Helena Gaunt explains how this redevelopment project demonstrates our commitment to the performing arts, their place in the heart of our cities, in the centre of all our lives.

Transformative spaces old and new

The Old Library expresses our commitment to evolving the practices of the performing arts through more informal approaches to performance, and vibrant, more inclusive forms of participation.

Having bid for and been awarded a 99-year lease on this wonderful building, we hope our plans will make a real difference to Cardiff - Cardiff, as a Music City and a city deeply committed to culture, in very challenging times,

The new spaces built at our North Road campus in 2011 transformed the extent to which we’ve been able to connect to the public – as audiences for our creative programme. Where we once had just a few thousand coming to see our work each year, we now record over 55,000 attendances annually.

We know that these experiences can bring tremendous benefits for well-being and creativity, as well as for our students, for whom being immersed in an arts centre is one of the most powerful ways to learn.

Royal Welsh College Symphony Orchestra rehearsing in the Old Library

Why the Old Library?

The world is changing very fast, and within this the performing arts are, if anything, only becoming more important to well-being, to story-telling and to all voices being heard - to making sense of our lives. 

At the same time our disciplines also need to adapt and evolve in how they connect with people, becoming more flexible and agile in responding to needs. The Old Library asks and empowers us to address these two imperatives together.

It connects us into the very centre of the city, to civic mission and to civic pride, and to that sense that the arts can and should be a part of daily life. 

And it also opens up a vibrant provocation and set of possibilities about how the performing arts now reach and connect with people, inhabit and animate public space, and energise cultural place-making.

Old Library, new vision - supporting the cultural ecology of the city

So our residency in the Old Library will be different to our work at North Road. 

First we must seek to build on some of the Old Library’s history: it’s original vision that emerged from the extraordinary commercial success of the coal industry in the late 19th century, and sought to give something essential back to the people through a place for the arts and learning in which everyone – young and old - could find creative inspiration and opportunity.

Local secondary school children working on a scenic construction project

Second, we must lead with the deep need, that we have been responding to in the re-design of our degrees, to reconnect the social and aesthetic parts of artistic practice, connecting our students more profoundly to context and communities, rather than making art in a bubble.

The Old Library brilliantly allows us to realise this, giving us more flexible spaces for informal performance, workshops and other forms of engagement than we have on North Road. As well as the opportunity to collaborate with partners, including those currently resident here, to innovate and stimulate fresh work.

Third, we must use this opportunity to redouble our commitment to Wales’ deep cultural roots, its language and artistic traditions. Remembering not least the rich vein of extraordinary Welsh talent that has come from, and continues to emerge from Wales, nurtured by astonishing community roots, including the eisteddfodau tradition, community choirs, brass bands and youth theatre groups.

Building on community residencies

As we do this, the Old Library will become a hub to inform and support an evolving network of residencies that we are creating for our students and recent graduates. 

Each of these sees a small group of them partner with a community arts venue, a school, a healthcare setting, a business, for at least a year – co-creating appropriate performance and engagement activities. 

Examples already underway include the Norwegian Church in Cardiff Bay, Pedal Power in Bute Park, and Penarth Pavilion. We aim to extend this network across Wales over the next years.

A welcoming space for all

As well as being a space for our students and their training, we’ll animate the heritage building’s threshold and create space for encounters and possibilities there. And we'll then work to draw people into the building for activities and performances in which they are active participants. 

We want the Old Library to be warm and welcoming within, and we hope also that what happens here will shine brightly on and sing to the city, the country and the wider world - a unique place supporting the cultural ecology of the city and helping us at the College continue transforming the performing arts for the future.

Other stories