The Centre was originally built as The People's College in 1846, with funds raised by public subscription, to provide "education for the working classes of Nottingham and the neighbourhood, forever". Transferred to the Nottingham School Board in 1879, the buildings on College Street were expanded to meet the needs of the developing Victorian education legislation, with the Ropewalk building being added in 1888. They were used variously for infant, junior and secondary education until 1924.
From 1924 until 1945 the College became a junior technical school for the building trades. In 1925 the premises on College Street became a boys "central school", specialising in the sciences and equipped with chemistry and physics laboratories; this school closed in 1941. In 1945 the junior technical school for the building trades became a secondary school for the same purpose until it closed in 1965.
People's College of Further Education was set up in 1950, using rooms at College Street and other city locations. People's College of Further Education continued to use the College Street and Ropewalk buildings after moving to new premises on Castle Road in 1959. The Trent Polytechnic, now Nottingham Trent University, started its acclaimed theatre design course here during the 70s and Nottingham Playhouse used part of the buildings as a store for many years.
The College Street Centre for the Performing Arts first occupied the building on the Ropewalk in November 1988, when the first performances were given by Acorn Young People's Theatre and Dance Company and 11th Session Senior Drama Workshops. People's College of Further Education vacated the College Street premises in 1989 to allow extensive refurbishment and alteration of the building to be carried out. The building then came into use as part of the College Street Centre for the Performing Arts in September 1990. The Centre was officially opened on 12th July 1991 by Kenneth Branagh together with Councillor Fred Riddell, Chairman of Nottinghamshire Education Committee.
Until April 1998, it was the focus for Nottinghamshire Education's Arts in Education provision and was the creative base for local, regional, national and international projects. Nottinghamshire Education Theatre Company performed on the Edinburgh Fringe every year from 1989-1995 under the direction of Alistair Conquer. They won a Fringe First and the Fringe section of the Evening News Cavalcade five consecutive times. Studio 12 was dismantled to create Venue 16 at Davie Street, which ran 6 shows over two weeks together with the Brassery performing at other venues. Reviews were consistently good and audiences high. Productions also toured to Poznan in Poland in '92, '95, '96 and '98. They returned to Edinburgh in 1997.
In 1993 the Arts provision at College Street Centre took responsibility for the Sandfield Centre (previously Sandfield School and before that Cottesmore Boys and Girls Schools) and converted the huge gymnasium into a 300-seater theatre, which, as Sandfield Theatre, became a popular venue in the City. The Sandfield Centre offered the Arts Service a number of workshops, in which to create sets, props and costumes and classrooms were converted into space for overnight residentials, promoted by Louise Bennett.
In April 98, College Street was transferred to the new City of Nottingham LEA and continued to provide Arts activities for everyone from the "Cradle to the Grave". As part of the Lifelong Learning Division, College Street was also the base for Curriculum Enrichment Services, which besides the Arts, includes Health, PE&Sports and Environmental Education, Study Support and a range of other functions.
From 2001, the Arts provision gradually decreased, although the Youth Theatre, Dance Advisory provision, Visual Arts Courses and Sandfield Theatre were maintained including a substantial expansion in the Music Service. The Curriculum Service, based at the Centre had become responsible for Sport & PE, School Swimming, Healthy Schools, Environmental and Outdoor Education, Study Support, International Dimension and School Twinning, E-Learning, Participation & Schools Councils, SACRE and CPD for Schools. Between 2010 and 2018, as the education landscape changed with increasing academisation of schools and less funding available to the Local Authority, many of the Services, valued by Schools were disbanded with the expertise moving into Academy groups within and beyond the City. In 2011, with the move of the Education Department to Loxley House on Station Street, the Sandfield Centre closed and with it the Theatre.
In 2013, the Music Service became a separate trust and has remained as tenants at the Centre.
2018 was a significant year. Unfortunately, English Heritage did not value the uniqueness of the Centre as much as thousands of young people had over the previous 30 years, nor its historical focus for education for more than 170 years and did not list the building. The remaining staffing for the Arts support for schools and the Healthy Schools team left. The Nottingham Community Wardrobe, first begun in 1989 with Elaine Pearson, which had become the repository and hire for thousands of costumes created for productions and donations, transferred with some 40,000 items to a Community Interest Company. The two narrowboats Megan and Tinker’s Leen, which had become part of the Adventure provision, managed from the Centre, were gifted to the volunteers who had been supporting the project for many years. They created the Nottingham Narrowboat Project Charity and continue to operate the boats in the interest of furthering local knowledge of Nottingham’s waterways. The original manager of the ‘new’ Centre in 1988, Alistair
Conquer, retired and the licensed studio theatre space, previously Studio 12 was named after him.
The Centre continues to house the Sport, Outdoor Education Adventure and School Swimming Teams but diversified its tenancies to include a range of Council provision and external tenants in order to maintain a viable business covering all of its running costs. The Arts remain the Centre’s soul with a wide range of daytime and evening activities for children, young people and adults.