LAST year Kala Sangam Arts Centre introduced a Pay What You Decide basis for most of the shows it presents.

After each performance at the Bradford venue people can choose to give what they think it was worth, or whatever they can afford.

Audience numbers have gone up by nearly 40per cent since the scheme began, says Creative Director Alex Croft.

“The amounts range - one man came along and gave 80p, because that’s all he could afford, but he said he’d been wanting to come to Kala Sangam for a long time and he was bowled over by the range of events we have. That meant as much to us as any donation,” says Alex. “We want as many people as possible to experience these fantastic performances, and Pay What You Decide has really opened up access.

“We’re getting audiences coming in saying ‘We didn’t know Kala Sangam did this sort of thing’ - and they’re coming back.”

Kala Sangam, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, started out as a space for creating and performing South Asian dance and today it’s an intercultural arts centre; providing space for development, rehearsal and performance, and supporting artists in areas such as business planning and developing work.

While it has evolved over recent years, its initial vision of bringing people together through arts is integral to its three programme strands: supporting Bradford-based artists, particularly in dance and music; bringing in and delivering work that reflects British diversity; and showcasing South Asian arts, with a re-focus on today’s British South Asian people.

In November Kala Sangam is launching a month-long public engagement, ahead of a feasibility study. “Our priority is to target Pakistani Muslim heritage communities, but also refugees and Eastern European migrants and white British people, particularly men, who are so often left behind,” says Alex. “Part of the feasibility study is reaching people who have no idea who we are or that we’re here. It will be a wide-reaching questionnaire, with face-to-face meetings and focus groups. We want to identify what people think Kala Sangam is and has been, and what they think an arts centre should be doing.”

Adds Alex: “We’re approaching our next round of Arts Council bidding by placing Bradford at the heart of everything we do. “That has placed us on a national scale for Best Practice. Over the last two-and-a-half years we’ve been looking at what function an arts centre should have in Bradford. Not a week goes by without artists using this place. Art-related room bookings have gone up by 87per cent - for things like arts sector meetings, Applause Theatre, the annual Penny Appeal Muslim panto. We’re now doing three times as many performances, audiences are up by 67per cent, and 61per cent of our book is from Bradford.”

The eventual aim of the feasibility study is to shape the organisation into a nationally-recognised arts centre. Located at St Peter’s House, Kala Sangam has its 128-seat Ganges Theatre and is planning an additional theatre, with 200 seats, on the ground floor, a space that is currently rented out. “The constraints of this building mean that, even with the lift, we’re not as accessible as we would like. Expanding to the ground floor would open up accessibility,” says Alex. “My vision is for us to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the National Science and Media Museum, Bradford Theatres, Bradford Live. Bradford needs a flagship arts centre. A 200-seat theatre would enable things like Bradford Literature Festival, Theatre in the Mill and Mind the Gap to show their work on a bigger stage.”

Kala Sangam works with these and other organisations in the district, and it is this multi-agency support that he says will strengthen Bradford’s big to be City of Culture 2025. “Bradford doesn’t have a big producing theatre, or an opera or ballet company, like Leeds, but we’re bigger than the sum of our parts if we work together, and strengthen that patchwork quilt,” says Alex, who is on the steering committee leading Bradford’s bid. A bid director is expected to be announced next month.

“The bid needs to reflect all communities and what they define as culture. We talk about museums and galleries, but cultural exchanges happen on a day-to-day basis,” says Alex. “I was working for the Arts Council in Yorkshire and the North East when Hull was awarded and delivered City of Culture 2017 and I saw a remarkable transformation - and the legacy still stands true. For me, the main benefit for Hull was that it significantly increased its profile and challenged negative presumptions of the city. I remember lots of new visitors it attracted being amazed at how beautiful the Old Town is. I’m sure that would be replicated in Bradford with somewhere like Little Germany. You could tell the people of Hull were proud of what their city delivered and that civic pride has continued well beyond the year of delivery.

“Sunderland didn’t win, but in bidding for the title it set up infrastructures that brought in huge investment. Yes, let’s go for this bid - it shows confidence and pride that we’re bidding - but we should do it in a way that brings funding for an arts infrastructure. One of Bradford’s great strengths is its arts sector’s one-for-all mentality. We’re already seeing investment and confidence in that, with Creative People in Places and the £1.m Arts Council funding for the Producing Hub.

“We’ve got the groundwork in place. Now we have to look at where we want arts in this city to be in 20 years’ time, and how this bid can help us get there.”