TWO years after closing its doors a former department store is getting a new lease of life as an arts centre.

The vast Marks and Spencers building in Northgate, which still has some of the fridge shelving in the walls of the old food hall and mirrors on the pillars of what would have been the clothing department, is being taken over by an art group determined to bring a thriving centre back to Darlington.

Cornerstone Arts got the keys to the building in January and are getting ready to open its first exhibitions to the public in the coming weeks.

Louise Maddison, who runs the group, said: “I haven’t stopped grinning. It’s been a life-long dream to run an arts space.

“Now we’ve had the water turned on this week we can start getting more people into the building.

“We just have to finalise the insurance but it should be happening in the next couple of weeks.”

The group has taken over all three floors of the building, which has been empty since Marks and Spencers moved out in 2018.

It has grand plans for what it wants to do with the building, which include using an old storage room on the first floor to reboot the Darlington Media Group, and turning some of the office space into individual studios for artists to rent.

Meanwhile, the former staff canteen on the second floor could become a dance studio, which could also be used for exercise classes, and the ladies locker room may become a prayer room.

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The old staff canteen, which could be used as a dance studio

On the ground floor, the former food hall will be turned into a flexible space, with movable dividers, which could be used for putting on workshops and classes, while the former clothes department will be an exhibition space and cafe, which will be open to the public.

“There’s so much talent in Darlington,” said Ms Maddison. “I want this space to work as a community in all senses, so it’s a place where people can meet and work collaboratively and where groups can come and work together.

“But not just creatively, for the community as well.

“There are all sorts of community groups that don’t realise how they can support each other.

“When more people meet together in a building, those opportunities arise.

“When the old arts centre closed all the groups that met there were spread out all over the borough so people don’t know what other people are doing.”

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The unit's front window in Northgate has been filled with art ahead of its opening

She is hoping to recreate the atmosphere of the old arts centre in Vane Terrace, which closed in 2012 after Darlington Borough Council decided to withdraw its subsidy because of funding cuts.

She added: “We are such a creative region. At its peak the old arts centre was the largest outside of London and it was always humming with people.

“It was always bustling and busy. Those people don’t disappear. They are still here and want somewhere to express themselves.

“Back in the early 80s people like Mark Gatiss and Vic Reeves were performing and milling around at the arts centre. That’s where they honed their craft.

"It was inspirational for so many people. We need the same kind of space for people to develop their talents.”

Cornerstone is currently paying a peppercorn rent to East Street Arts to use the building and is welcoming donations, including furniture, especially tables, to help it get started.

Darlington Mayor Councillor Nick Wallis was given a tour of the venue on Friday. He said: “I was involved in the closure of the arts centre and it was one of the worst times of my life, and for the artistic community.

“This is a building which oozes potential. It’s vast, but so are the ambitions of the people driving the project.

“I look forward to seeing how it develops in the weeks and months to come.

“To have this living against as a hub of the community would be so exciting.”

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Alex 'the Viking' Crawley is hoping to use the building to run workshops

Among the artists hoping to use the centre when it is fully open is 32-year-old Alex Crawley, from Darlington, who is part of Viking re-enactment group Kraken Re-enactment and is also a craftsman, using a pole lathe to create realistic weapons and items for demonstrations.

Among his creations are arrows and shields, and the framework for a wooden tent, complete with Viking-style dragon heads.

Mr Crawley, who has also been helping to prepare the building, said: “I’m hoping to have workshops here so I can show people how to make things like arrows and spoons and even things like little needles.

“I’ve been making stuff myself but I haven’t really been doing workshops before.”

As well as being a hub for artists, other community groups will be welcome, including LGBT+ youth group Y-Pop, who have been holding weekly meet-ups there on a Saturday following the closure of Darlington ARQ.

Michelle Haigh, who organises the group, said: “It’s a safe space for them. We’ve been here for three weeks.

"It’s really lovely – it’s nice to feel welcome.”