Wingfield arts centre reborn

Great music and fine art is back in north Suffolk as Arts Editor Andrew Clarke found out when he visited the reborn Wingfield Barns.

Andrew Clarke

Great music and fine art is back in north Suffolk as Arts Editor Andrew Clarke found out when he visited the reborn Wingfield Barns.

When Wingfield Arts closed its doors four years ago, a profound sense of shock rippled through the East Anglian arts community. Wingfield had spent the previous 25 years bringing world class musicians and art exhibitions out of London and depositing them in the rural heart of Suffolk and Norfolk.

Under the guidance of founder and arts entrepreneur Ian Chance, performers who you would normally only see at the Royal Festival Hall were appearing in Eye Church. Wingfield Barns were turned into a state-of-the art, exhibition gallery and studio complex.


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Suddenly rural Wingfield was playing host to print exhibitions by Picasso, Hockney and Matisse.

But, Wingfield Arts wasn't about preaching to the converted, Ian Chance wanted the arts to be accessible to all. He pioneered an annual Suffolk Schools art competition which challenged A level and CCSE art students to come up with stunning pieces of work and in the finest piece of arts for all programming took over Framlingham Castle for four weekends in July and August to stage a series of open-air music events embracing folk, jazz, opera and classical music.

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When Wingfield Arts ceased to be Suffolk's cultural life was never quite the same again. Other events have grown up, it's true but they largely involve you going to established venues. The thrill of finding a world famous opera singer in your parish church can't be replicated by having the same performer in a proper concert hall.

That was the past, that is the legacy of Wingfield Arts but happily the past is in the process of catching up with the present. Wingfield Arts is re-born. It's a different company, it's under new management but it is determined to bring the quality of the past and marry it with a sustainable future.

The pair behind Wingfield Barns, as the new venture is called, are Geoff Doggett, a business consultant, and Fred Barter, a graphic designer/publisher. The pair are pledged to run Wingfield Barns as a self-sustaining venture having convinced Mid-Suffolk Council with their business plan.

Mid-Suffolk bought the Barns complex from the Arts Council for a �1, after the site remained unsold after more than two yearst.

Both Geoff and Fred are clearly enthused by the possibilities for the future but are equally aware that they should not run before they can walk. The site had what is known as a soft opening in April, hosting a series of small scale events advertised on parish notice boards, before the official opening for business happened on June 4 with the joint opening of a new Lee Miller photographic exhibition and the return of The International Mini Print Show which was always a part of the Wingfield summer programme.

Although both exhibitions have been curated by Ian Chance, Geoff is at pains to point out that Ian is no longer part of the set-up at Wingfield. But, it is clear by Ian's presence at the opening ceremony that while he is happy to pass the rural arts torch over to the new team, his involvement in the opening shows gives the venture a satisfying link to the past.

“We are delighted that Ian has given his support to the new venture and he has told us, how happy he is that the Barns complex is open for business again. It was a crying shame to have these state-of-the-art buildings just sitting there doing nothing. These are some of the best exhibition facilities in Suffolk, temperature and humidity controlled, it was criminal they weren't being put to any use.”

He said that, being a Harleston resident, he was a supporter of Wingfield Arts in the past and a regular at the various concerts and exhibitions. He said that when the liquidator was unable to sell the site, he became concerned about its future and vowed to do something about it.

“I came up here one Sunday with my dog in February 2007, just for a walk. The gate was open, I walked in and there wasn't a pan tile off the roof, a window broken, it was appeared to be suspended in time, it was just sitting there. I darned nearly cried. It then spurred me into action. I sent an email to Mid-Suffolk, the next day saying 'What's happening' and they replied: 'Not a lot really' and it all went quiet until June when Mid-Suffolk had a meeting with the Arts Council in Cambridge and acquired the site.”

Geoff said that it was at this stage he volunteered to draft a business plan for what would become Wingfield Barns. “I basically showed what could happen here. I provided a business model for the future, recognising the problems experienced by Wingfield Arts and their dependence on grants and exploring the need to develop a community arts centre.”

He said that in December 2007 Mid-Suffolk voted to take on the venture and allocated a �100,000 capital grant to undertake works on the site to make sure it was in good repair to be opened again to the public and maintenance costs would be very low in the future. He said that they no longer have any grant-aid and need to be self-funding.

In June he signed a contract which has made him site manager for the next two years. He said that the aim of Wingfield Barns is to provide a wide-ranging of arts events based around the barns complex - a mixture of art exhibitions, theatre events and a broad range of music.

“The idea is to build upon Wingfield's reputation for quality and enhance it still further. We will be aiming to put a broad variety of events here but they will all be of the very highest quality. Excellence is what we are about.”

He said that it was important that they develop a close relationship with audiences and that there was an element of trust.

Early on in the development Geoff brought his friend Fred Barter on board to run the programming side of the operation which left Geoff free to tackle the marketing and site management issues.

He said that it was important to them that Wingfield Barns was seen to be part of the local community. “If we are seen to be part of the structure of the area then local people will feel, quite rightly, that Wingfield Barns belongs to them. Certainly, in terms of audiences we are a upper Waveney valley operation but if you look at the programme we have planned then from these opening exhibitions to events right through the summer and autumn, we have a lot to offer people from all over Suffolk and Norfolk.”

He said that education figures highly on their agenda and there first act was to restart the Wingfield Arts Awards - the art project for schools. “We have contacted Tim Wilson, the county art advisor and he's back on board. We are anxious to tap into the students' creativity and provide them with a showcase for their work. I know from the exhibitions that Ian ran that the standard of work that these youngsters are capable of is fantastic and as far as I am aware, there is no other part of the country which celebrates the best of its sixth form art in this way.”

Fred Barter, a former art director for leading London advertising agencies, said that his time has been spent spreading the word in the artistic community, looking up old friends and colleagues from art college and his days in graphic design, sourcing the best possible exhibitions.

“What I love about it, is that everyone who comes here gets really enthusiastic about it. It's a lovely place to be. The facilities are first rate, the locale, the situation is perfect, it's a wonderful place to be and a wonderful place to be creative. There's a spirit about the place that gives off a lot of positive energy.”

He said that he has an ambition to make Wingfield a centre for the visual arts. “I want Wingfield to be regarded in the same terms for the visual arts as Aldeburgh and Snape is for music. I have been able to put together a programme for the rest of this year which is pretty good, if I say so myself, and I have been able to do that because the people who create the work have become very excited by what we have got here. These people, influential people, are not going to come if they think: 'well this is a bit of tin-pot operation'.”

Certainly, getting back the international mini-print exhibition is a major coup as is the hosting of a major Lee Miller photographic exhibition with a number of talks by Lee Miller's son Antony Penrose.

“We are very grateful that Ian Chance, the founder of Wingfield Arts 25 years ago, and who now works on Lee Miller archive at Farley Farm, has curated both exhibitions and has brought them to Wingfield to mark the re-opening of this wonderful complex. It provides a valuable link with the past as well as a look to the future, again with the emphasis on quality work.”

Ian Chance said that it was a heartening but a slightly emotional return to Wingfield after more than five years away. “Being back just for today I get a real sense of the phoenix rising from the ashes. We have chosen the exhibition very carefully. We had a Lee Miller exhibition here at Wingfield when I was still director and this is entirely different. This is Lee Miller and Roland Penrose at home at Farley's playing host to a marvellous array of friends and artists during the late 1940s and 1950s. We have pictures of people like Picasso wandering round the farm talking to the cattle, Man Ray and others are set to work peeling the potatoes, it is a series of domestic scenes but with a high profile cast.”

He said that he has long been the champion of the International Mini Print exhibition and has now taken over curating it. “It is a world of art in a single room. You have an abundance of different styles and different subject matter and a huge array of different printing techniques all nestling side by side.

“The International Mini Print Exhibition was founded in 1960 with the aim of contributing to the advancement of the graphic arts. Since 1981 over 10,500 artists have participated, representing 58 countries - a huge undertaking and it keeps on growing.”

In addition to the art exhibitions both Geoff and Fred are delighted to have booked a series of small-scale music evenings at the barns bringing to north Suffolk some of the world's leading musicians - particularly from the fields of jazz and blues.

Fred said: “We have made contact with a promoter in Peterborough who is flying over jazz and blues stars from the United States to play some gigs in London and they are now stopping off at Wingfield before flying home. It's amazing real Mississippi bluesmen and jazz stars playing in Suffolk. Wingfield is back.”

Details on music and art programmes at Wingfield Barns can be found online at www.onesuffolk.co.uk/wingfieldarts

Upcoming events at Wingfield include:

Lee Miller at Farlays photo exhibition until July 12

International Mini Print exhibition until July 12

Taming of the Shrew-Open Air Shakespeare, Mouth Theatre on June 28

Twelfth Night Open Air Shakespeare Roughcast Theatre on July 4

Dave Thomas & James Goodwin gig 7.30pm on July 5

Royal Photographic Society 152nd International Print Exhibition from July 25 - August 30

Quentin Blakes's What Are You Like exhibition from September 4-30

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