Town unveils culture plans

By Andrew Clarke, Arts EditorIPSWICH threw down the gauntlet yesterday in an effort to place itself at the cultural centre of East Anglia. Major investments in theatre, museums, gallery space were announced as well as development plans for the Ipswich Film Theatre.

By Andrew Clarke, Arts Editor

IPSWICH threw down the gauntlet yesterday in an effort to place itself at the cultural centre of East Anglia.

Major investments in theatre, museums, gallery space were announced as well as development plans for the Ipswich Film Theatre.

Mrs Judy Terry, Ipswich Borough Council's portfolio holder for arts and leisure, launched an on-going cultural strategy for the town, which includes the long-awaited appointment of an arts development officer to seek out funding for the various projects.

She stressed that the cultural strategy was not a pie-in the-sky wish list but a real statement of intent. "This is not merely a series of aspirations, but is intended as a working document, capable of revision and, inevitably, improvement, as new opportunities arise.

"Some people will be critical of our ambitions, but, during the last six months, we have strived to draw up a strategy which is workable… Suffolk College has also played an important part in our deliberations, as has the proposed university."

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Mrs Terry said that it has long been a scandal that a large proportion of the town's hugely important art collection has been locked away out of sight. Only a small proportion of the town's collection is on show at any one time.

Ipswich Borough's art collection contains the largest number of early Constable's and Gainsborough's of any institution outside London.

Mrs Terry said that it was the council's intention to get all of the town's historically important art collection out of storage and up on gallery walls.

In order to do this the town hall, currently undergoing a refurbishment programme, will be re-opened as new town centre gallery, dedicated to art showing the cultural and social history of the town.

The strategy also proposes a major rethink of the galleries at Christchurch Mansion and the Wolsey Gallery. The Wolsey Gallery, which is currently dedicated to the exhibition of contemporary art, will now act as an important exhibition space for some of the more important local artists including John Constable and Thomas Gainsborough.

Mrs Terry said that contemporary exhibitions would be relocated to galleries around the town and at Suffolk College.

Last year the Wolsey Gallery staged an exhibition at St Mary's on the Quay on the Waterfront. It is this kind of "Out of Gallery" venue that is expected to house contemporary exhibitions in the future.

She added: "In the longer-term the exhibition of contemporary visual arts should evolve and relocate into an inspiring new venue. There is now the opportunity to take full advantage of re-development at the Waterfront and University Campus Suffolk, which is keen to have a strong arts-based faculty. This whole Waterfront area could be an exciting corridor of contemporary arts activity for Ipswich and the region. The existing local talent programme will also be relocated, possibly to a new venue in the Town Hall."

Similarly, basing arts provision around the waterfront is seen as helping the town's university bid and helping the regeneration of this historical part of the town. Mrs Terry said she was delighted at the development of the new dance facilities by Dance East on the old Cranfields site.

One of the more controversial proposals will be the gradual closure of the Ipswich Film Theatre at the Corn Exchange. The cinema will continue at the town centre venue for the immediate future but plans are afoot to sign a deal with the Ipswich Odeon to take over one of the screens at their five screen cinema on Major's Corner.

This will allow arts cinema to be screened in the town seven days a week. Noise from events in the Grand Hall and usage restrictions on the Corn Exchange currently mean that the film theatre can only operate for four evenings a week.

Mrs Terry said that if the experiment at the Odeon proved successful then they would actively pursue the possibility on taking over the programming of a further screen or two.

The Film Theatre has also applied to the Film Council for a high definition digital projector to bring its screening abilities up-to-date.

In the immediate future, the film theatre will also develop a small satellite operation at Suffolk College with the hope of developing a major presence on the site when it gained university status. It is hoped that the film theatre will eventually find a permanent home on the waterfront.

Mrs Terry said that they were looking seriously at the future of the Corn Exchange. The grand hall will be retained for public events but the ground floor is set to undergo a dramatic rethink.

She said: "We want to develop the potential of the Corn Exchange as a leisure venue, with a cafe/bar to complement the Grand Hall. We are also negotiating to move the Film Theatre to a screen at the Odeon in order to widen audiences.

"This is a positive move. At the same time, we are working with Suffolk College to develop specialist cinema as part of its arts faculty. We want to invest in the Corn Exchange, to make it a much more widely used, modern and attractive, public venue."

She added that the redevelopment of the Corn Exchange may include shopping facilities around the periphery of the building.

The Regent Theatre will continue much as before but with more emphasis on live music, comedians and a professional pantomime. Mrs Terry stressed that The Regent needed to get itself onto a secure financial footing before the council could think about investing substantial sums of money into some much needed restoration.

She said that as part of this operation they would be improving the operation of bars and kiosks as well as starting a Friends organisation and seeking commercial sponsorship.

"The Regent has had little capital investment since it reopened in 1991,

apart from essential roof works undertaken in 2003. Further multi-million pound investment is needed in the medium-term to bring the building up to modern standards."

She said that during the public consultation carried out last year, 90% of the respondents stressed that the retention of The Regent theatre should be the council's number one priority.

Mrs Terry also publicly pledged continuing council support to the new Wolsey Theatre and is keen to see local acts, who contribute to the annual Pulse Festival, displaying their talents at the Edinburgh Festival.

The council have ear-marked £500,000 for a capital grant to cover much needed building work – provided this is matched by Suffolk County Council and Arts Council East.

The borough council will continue to promote special events including big name pop concerts at Portman Road, Ipswich Music Day and hope to develop Ip-Art into The Ipswich Festival – which would not only celebrate local arts talent – but would also include a sports event. A Winter Festival, to be held during the run-up to Christmas, is also in the pipeline.

The development of the town's museums is one of the central elements to the cultural strategy. Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich Museum, The Wolsey Gallery are all ear-marked for major renovation and modernisation. The emphasis will be on public access and for a hands-on interactive approach to the collections. Meanwhile a new Waterfront Museum is on the drawing board, to be developed in association with the Suffolk University to showcase artwork of an international significance.

The funding of this, and a proposed free-standing extension to Christchurch Mansion, will be part of the responsibilities of the new arts development officer.

Mrs Terry said: "The arts development officer will support the arts in Ipswich in order to nurture audiences and enrich the lives of all residents in the town. There are now great opportunities to develop the arts across the town. With

the appointment of an arts development officer the Council will have the

opportunity to deliver the visual arts to a wider audience."

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