A disused building in the heart of County Durham is being transformed into a new art gallery, exploring one of the most significant aspects of the region’s industrial past.

This autumn, work will begin to convert the former Old Bank Chambers Building at 45 Market Place, Bishop Auckland, into a space dedicated to showcasing paintings by the County’s former miners and wider mining community, as well as other works depicting life underground.

The Mining Art Gallery, due to open in August 2017, is the idea of Gillian Wales and Dr Robert McManners OBE, founders of the Gemini Collection of Mining Art, in partnership with regional charity, the Auckland Castle Trust.

It follows the successful Pitmen and Prelates exhibition, curated by Gillian, Robert and the charitable Trust, which was recently displayed inside the former home of the Prince Bishops of Durham, Auckland Castle.

Dr Robert McManners OBE, co-founder of the Gemini Collection, said: “Mining art is a vital aspect of coalfield heritage, which had not been properly valued and was rapidly disappearing from living memory.

“During five years of research for the book Shafts of Light, where we recorded and evaluated the work of more than 70 coalfield artists, many of whom had not been previously acknowledged in print, we realised that it was essential that this work be collected for future study and appreciation – and this we did.

“Now, after more than twenty years of collecting, Gillian and I have acquired over 300 pictures, as well as further pieces of three-dimensional art, which allow us to understand the language of the mining artist.

“Through imagery they tell us what it felt like to work in the coalmines, not simply what it looked like.  In this mining artists are unique and we find no equivalent corpus of experiential art from any of the other heavy industries that flourished in the North East in the twentieth century.

“Coal shaped not only the demography but also the value-systems held in the North East. It has defined the region’s character and we owe it to those in our coal industry, that great driver of the Industrial Revolution, to permanently celebrate their art and understand why, even for their leisure, the miner felt it necessary to paint that same dark, clamorous, claustrophobic arcane world, denied to our gaze, where he had just spent a perilous shift of frightening physical toil.

“We are delighted now to be realising this ambition in our new Mining Art Gallery.”

As well as providing a permanent home for the renowned Gemini Collection, which includes works by prominent local mining artists Tom McGuinness and Norman Cornish, amongst many others, the new Mining Art Gallery will also offer a wide range of opportunities to explore the history of mining and the impact it had, not just on those who worked there, but on the County Durham community as a whole.

Auckland Castle Trust is currently developing a programme of educational activities and community events to help the region’s residents engage with this heritage and plan to offer a number of volunteering opportunities within the gallery itself once work is complete.

Dr Chris Ferguson, Curatorial Director at the Auckland Castle Trust, said: “The Gemini Collection, and the passion of Bob and Gillian in assembling it, showcases the national importance of Mining Art. We hope that this new gallery will allow new audiences to discover the products of known and relatively unsung artists.”

Construction companies from across County Durham are now being urged to show their support and be a part of the team that brings the Mining Art Gallery project to life.

A tendering process will begin within the next few weeks, covering every element of the building conversion, including mechanical and engineering, electrics, plumbing, exhibition fit out and digital works.

Any businesses interested in being part of this process are being asked to register with Karlamay Christensen at Auckland Castle Trust by emailing Karlamay.Christensen@aucklandcastle.org

Liz Fisher, Operations Director for Auckland Castle Trust, said: “The mining artwork in Bob and Gillian’s Gemini Collection is a powerful reflection of the North East’s industrial identity.

“We will be working closely with local businesses, schools and social groups to capture the sense of pride these pieces instil and to ensure the County Durham community is captured not only in the paintings but in the very fabric of the gallery itself.

“While there is a lot of building work still to be done, we are confident that, with support from the construction community, we can create a space for the future, befitting of the region’s past.”

The new Mining Art Gallery, spread across two floors, forms part of the wider development project in Bishop Auckland, currently being led by the Auckland Castle Trust. It will be one of the first new buildings to open its doors, with a landmark Welcome Building and restored Auckland Castle set to follow in 2018.

Any companies or individuals across the North East wishing to support the new gallery specifically, are being asked to contact the Trust’s Head of Fundraising, Jane Robinson, by emailing jane.robinson@aucklandcastle.org

More details about the Trust’s Future Plans can also be found online at www.aucklandcastle.org