AN arts project is celebrating its first birthday with a big funding boost.

Community interest company WillyNillie, which is based in a former greengrocers shop in Chester-le-Street, is getting £15,000 from the English Arts Council.

Originally a pop-up arts hub with just a three-month lifespan and funding from local councillors, WillyNillie hopes to become a permanent fixture in the town.

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The Arts Council money will fund its next big project to turn the town centre into an art gallery, said co-founder Sharon Gollan.

It will ask local groups to contribute artwork for an exhibition about the town that will tour venues including the town’s St Mary and St Cuthbert Parish Church.

It will then be displayed in shop windows throughout Front Street, creating a town centre arts trail.

“Basically, the community will see itself in the windows of the shops,’’ said Mrs Gollan.

“The idea is also to get people to use the shops, get them walking up and down Front Street, and to get some trade in.”

Since its launch, WillyNillie has held workshops attended by 800 people, held six exhibitions and seven craft fairs.

It has also worked with local organisations and community groups including the YMCA, the Cyrenians and Change 4 Life.

Mrs Gollan said she and co-founder Miranda Petersen started the company to provide a much-needed venue for local artists.

She added: “This has been a fantastic year for WillyNillie and the year ahead is just as exciting.

“We really appreciate the support we’ve had from our local community, the council, and from our funders.

“We’ve had the pleasure of meeting and working with some very talented and creative people, and doing something within the community that we all feel very proud of.”

The founding pair have been joined by Ann Proctor, Gillian Westrip and Tracy Barnes as directors.

WillyNillie has a busy schedule from September with activities for all ages.

It will hold a birthday a party on Saturday (August 23) at 156b Front Street – opposite the town’s main post office - from noon to 4pm. It will showcase a new exhibition - a collection of graffiti art by youngsters from Nettlesworth - as well as works produced in classes at the shop. Admission is free and everyone is welcome.

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