Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: The Firstsite gallery is finally full

Martin Newell at the Firstsite gallery

Martin Newell at the Firstsite gallery - Credit: Archant

Well here’s the headline: “Colchester Art Gallery Packed With People Shock.”

Martin Newell at the Firstsite gallery

Martin Newell at the Firstsite gallery - Credit: Archant

It was a Tinkerbell moment. You remember Peter Pan where Tinkerbell the fairy has been poisoned and will die unless all the children of the world clap their hands? Last Friday night it seemed that enough children had clapped their hands. For the first time since its opening, the place was packed to the gills. Can it be done again? Who knows? It was an encouraging start.

Earlier this year, after not months but years of relentless criticism of Firstsite, it finally looked as if the jeremiahs had won. There was almost a note of black triumph in the air when it was reported that the gallery’s funding was under threat and the building might be forced to close.

Matthew Rowe, its beleaguered director, resigned and for a while, Firstsite, rudderless and without destination, found itself without a captain too. The strange silence which ensued, became more acute, coinciding as it did, with the beginning of the General Election. To Firstsite’s detractors it looked as if the galleon was finally sinking under the weight of its own elitism. And then something happened.

The boys in long trousers stepped in and gave Anthony Roberts, director of Colchester Arts Centre, an acting commission – the considerable task of turning the situation around. It was an unexpected and inspired choice, its aptness only emphasised by the fact that no one objected to the idea. For a town with the middle name of ‘awkward’; a place chiefly known to the wider world for bloody historical revolts, great light engineering and a harsh military prison, this may have been a first.

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When I was a young herbert in the 1970s, attempting to put on arts events in Colchester seemed impossible. The town was full of dour people saying, “That wun’t come ter no good, willut?” I don’t remember for instance, much going on in the way of music.

Local pop musicians were stuck with only a handful of youth clubs and village halls. Only Essex University and Colchester Institute booked big-name bands during term times. The Who, Pink Floyd, The Kinks and ELO all once played here, unbelievable as it now seems. Colchester, however, once known as a lively theatrical town, by the 1970s had only the Mercury and University theatres. The only art gallery which I recall from that time was the Minories, a lovely place, if slightly snooty. There was a monthly folk club upstairs at the Recreation pub, and briefly, an embryonic arts lab/drop-in centre, Centipede, situated in the old Culver Square. That was about it.

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The salient thing about Firstsite is that it is a large and beautiful public space. Under its roof, as well as the larger exhibition space, are several smaller spaces and rooms, as well as a cinema-auditorium. Outside the building is a concourse, a greensward, and a verandah overlooking a lawn. They should all be used regularly in one capacity or other, since that is their purpose. Up until recently, the opposite has occurred.

If you had from the outset surrounded the gallery with barbed wire, armed guards and then erected signs reading KEEP OUT, you might have had more visitors than there have been so far. Rightly or wrongly, however, many people, including myself, seem to hate and fear modern art, or at least, they believe they do. So, you cannot simply keep presenting it to them, under the fabian notion that eventually they’ll give in and like it. They won’t. People don’t hate modern art because it challenges them, they hate it because often it seems ugly, boring and pretentious – made even more so by its makers defending its existence with incomprehensible explanatory notes.

Firstsite’s chief problem, therefore, has been that hardly anyone visited. It was a flagrant waste of a beautiful space – and that was the shame of it. People should be dallying in that foyer, tarrying on the concourse, falling in love on those lawns, looking at pictures and sculpture and enjoying all the films which the big cinemas never show. Firstsite, in fact, should be a place for those of us, and there are many, who don’t want our cultural lives mapped out for us in the sheeny boardrooms of the corporate wendy-house. Nor do we want to be told what we should be watching or reading by a handful of critics wittering on in London’s dreadful arts supplements.

Colchester and wider East Anglia have quite enough in the way of our own art to be self-contained. We need to forget London now. It’s a self-celebrating place which lost touch with the rest of the country years ago. It should be cut adrift in its own pricey conceits because, increasingly, it has nearly nothing which we need to buy.

As I’ve said before, this region doesn’t need to import art and culture, we already have it. We should instead be exporting it to London. And if they don’t want it, as the popular underworld saying goes: “Well, you can’t train a mug, can you?”

Meanwhile, back at the Arts Ranch, Anthony Roberts must play Sir Francis Drake to an armada of cynics and bean-counters waiting to close Firstsite should it fail to pick up in the next year or so.

It was rather moving to see the gallery so full last week, that’s all. Hands to the pump now, everyone. Or the fairy gets it.

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