Plans to turn Reading Gaol into an arts and heritage centre have been given a boost by street artist Banksy.
Banksy has agreed to back the project by selling the stencil he used to paint on the Grade II-listed building in March.
Reading Gaol has a significant place in history as the prison where writer Oscar Wilde was incarcerated in 1895 following his conviction for homosexuality. The site, which has been empty since December 2013 when it was shut by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), was originally constructed on top of the ruins of the former Reading Abbey.
The building is being sold by the MoJ, which in May indicated that a plan by Reading Borough Council to turn the gaol into an arts centre would be rejected as the local authority’s £2.6m bid for the site was too low.
Reading Borough Council leader Jason Brock said that the bid was still on the table and had support from local residents and the wider arts, heritage and cultural community.
“We very much welcome the attention that Banksy’s interest in Reading Gaol has placed on both the MoJ’s sale of the vacant prison and on the council’s ambition to transform it into a hub of arts, heritage and culture of local and national significance,” Brock said. “The council has had only informal approaches from representatives of Banksy to date, but no detailed discussions.”
“Our position has always been that we want to work with the MoJ to ensure the historical and cultural value of this important site is given rightful prominence in any future development. We would additionally welcome and encourage any alternative bids to the MoJ which seek to achieve that, whether from community organisations or from members of the wider arts and cultural community.
Reading Borough Council’s mixed-use scheme includes a heritage centre celebrating the history and archaeology of the site; a space for theatre, dance, music, cinema and outdoor exhibitions; a hub hosting affordable workspaces, events, workshops and exhibitions led by resident cultural organisations; and a rooftop cafe.
Reading East MP Matt Rodda has written to prisons minister Victoria Atkins about the future of Reading Gaol.
“Even at this late stage, I would ask you to consider the bids not only in terms of the size of a capital receipt for the ministry but also to fully consider the broader economic and social value of Reading Gaol,” Rodda wrote. “I hope you will agree that saving the building could have significant benefits for our community and the country as a whole.
“The gaol has been at the heart of Reading for around 170 years. Its history is intertwined with that of our town and with international literary and LGBT+ history. It is an incredibly important cultural heritage site.”