Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Close this now and ‘culture’ will avoid us like the plague

Firstsite, Colchester.

Firstsite, Colchester. - Credit: Andrew Partridge

Colchester’s Firstsite Gallery is in bother.

My late mum used to have an expression for this particular type of bother: “Give a dog a bad name and hang it,” she’d say.

From the outset, Colchester did not want its visual arts facility, the V.A.F. as it was then called. Most people were vehemently opposed to the very idea of it and said so.

A few kept on saying so. At the time, I compared the situation, rather harshly I confess, to a horde of hooded peasants, standing outside a castle shaking their fists and holding burning brands.

Colchester MP Sir Bob Russell, now himself an East Anglian Saturday regular, was a little cross with me at the time and expressed as much. How dare I call his constituents peasants, he said. He added that the beleagured gallery would be an expensive white elephant which only a certain elite would appreciate, all at the expense of a majority who didn’t like it. It pains me to say that he was absolutely right.


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People hated it before they even saw it. They hated it during its long and very expensive construction process. They hated it when it was finished. Most people refused to go to see anything which was exhibited there. Of those who did visit, many neither understood nor liked what they found.

Even the distant London press sneered. How long, asked one broadsheet arts correspondent, would it be before those angled white walls were grubby with children’s handprints? Colchester had finally got its much-vaunted arts facility. Poor old Colchester, always last in the queue when the culture bus rolls in – still marvelling at its prawn cocktails long after everyone else had defected to sun-dried tomatoes.

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Before Firstsite had even opened its doors, a weekly torrent of angry letters appeared in the local papers. The chatter, even in nearby artistic circles was disapproving, asking how anything could be hung sensibly on those sloping walls? The brickbats kept coming. Druggy kids were hanging around outside the building, skateboarders were making a clatter and the place was deserted at night etcetera. With even more grist to their mill, the gallery’s opponents said that there was no proper bus-park and poor bus users now had to wait at a tiny weather-blasted halt with no facilities.

Well done, Colchester. They gave the dog its bad name and got busy hanging it. Now what? Firstsites’s enemies, and they are many, are relishing the fact that the gallery’s funding is currently under threat. Its embattled director Matthew Rowe is pledging to do better. What else can the poor bloke do?

Me? I’m ashamed to be Colcestrian at times like this, as I imagine their hateful voices muttering: “Wun’t come ter no good, willut?” I sometimes see their point of view, mind. Nobody dislikes bad modern art more than I do. And yet, somehow, the wilful ignorance and negativity currently ranged against Firstsite seems even worse.

Colchester is a conservative place at best and always has been. The gallery might have made it easier on itself, by appeasing the traditionalists and commissioning a perfectly good local architect. Dedham’s Quinlan Terry submitted a superb design for the place but was passed over for a modernist.

As for Firstsite’s art: we might have prevailed upon a few of our regional luminaries for exhibits: Guy Taplin, James Dodds, Maggi Hambling, Grayson Perry and others. There are all sorts of things which we might have done, rather than having lumps of pipe, old jet turbines and terrible Xerox machines cluttering up the joint. But some people like that sort of thing, so you’ve got to have a bit, they’ll tell us.

I blame the Arts Council. I’m aware that they’re the ones in charge of the moolah, but most of them know nearly nothing about what we, the punters, consider to be art. Laugh if you wish, but a few of us around here still like our home-boys, Constable and Gainsborough.

Whatever has happened, however, has happened. It is up to us all now to rescue Firstsite. Shoulders to the wheel and all that. We should have a say in what we see. We should also demand that the metropolitan arts chumps stop foisting their pretentious and bonkers rubbish upon us. Firstsite, even though it wouldn’t necessarily have been my first choice of architect, is actually a great space, inside and out. It’s in a wonderful location.

The coming of Firstsite also opened up a grand aspect of Colchester, restoring to the town in the process views not seen for many generations. It’s only a couple of clicks away, in fact, from being rather lovely. We should recognise this. If it’s not doing well, it should be supported, not sneered at. Do its critics really think that if it fails and closes, they’re going to come out of this looking good? Will Firstsite’s opponents think they’ve won?

Because they won’t have won. International exhibitions and major travelling cultural events will forever avoid Colchester like the plague. Everyone else marooned here will simply shrug and slope off to see the events elsewhere.

In the future therefore, if you ever get to wondering why your town keeps being rejected in its bids for city status, keep those brickbats coming. Who knows, we might even get our nice eastern bloc-style bus park back.

But first let’s erect signs on the town’s entrance roads reading: “Welcome to Colchester –

Duuh!”

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