Bury art gallery makes tracks to new station site
- Credit: Gregg Brown
Smith’s Row art gallery in Bury St Edmunds will soon be on the move, heading to a new home at the town’s railway station. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to creative team Alison Plumridge and Natalie Pace about their plans
Travelling exhibitions are nothing new but eyebrows are raised when a gallery gathers together its display boards and opts to move to a new home based at the local railway station.
This is what will be happening when Smith’s Row gallery makes tracks for Bury St Edmunds railway station. The move is part of the redevelopment of the railway station and will see the redundant Station Master’s house being turned into larger arts complex which will include a new exhibition gallery, studio space and community workshops along with a garden which will be designed and laid out in conjunction with the Suffolk Wildlife Trust.
Smith’s Row director Alison Plumridge, and exhibition curator Natalie Pace are thrilled at the prospect of the move which will give them more space and more opportunities to interact with Suffolk people.
Alison said the aim is to create a series of arts events up and down the line and connect the towns of Ipswich, Stowmarket and Cambridge with Bury St Edmunds being a creative hub.
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“As part of the move we are imagining a new, innovative model of an arts organisation,” Alison said, “one which will use the railway as a catalyst for cultural exchanges between communities and artists on the line between Ipswich and Cambridge.”
Curator Natalie Pace said the idea was to have a number of events happening in different locations on the line – some of them will be linked with others, stand-alone events, linked to a particular place.
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“The idea is to stage exciting exhibitions and provide a place for artists to work. We will be looking at creating artist-in-residence schemes. We would also like to make use of dead-time. Instead of waiting on a station platform for a train to come into a gallery, take a look at an exhibition. If trains are delayed then this will be something positive you can do with your time. It would be lovely to have people discover artists and discover a love of art simply by popping into an exhibition because they were waiting for a train.
“The move to the station is about improving our provision, the new gallery is two-and-a-half times larger than our current space but also being in a position to reach out to new visitors and to the wider community.
“We’d also love it if people used the rail network to travel to exhibitions. You could go on an art trail by rail. Hopefully we will be able to create something with Suffolk Open Studios which can make the most of this new development.”
Alison says that with arts funding continuing to be uncertain, everyone needs to be clever in how the arts are programmed. “The landscape in the arts world in changing and we are anticipating the impact of these changes and making the most of the opportunities they present.
“We are looking at creating a forward-thinking arts organisation which embraces the whole eastern region, driving contemporary creative practice, offering opportunities for artists and encouraging new visitors to Bury St Edmunds and beyond.”
Natalie maintains that railways and art have always gone together. During the early years of the 20th Century the big, railway companies created those great holiday destination posters which have become highly collectable art works in their own right. Eminent artists have long been commissioned to provide artwork for the London Underground while for the past 25 years The Poetry Society have provided short, snappy verse as part of Poems on the Underground.
“What is unique about our project is its scale, ambition and potential to reach large audiences.”
Alison said that as part of the redevelopment of Bury St Edmunds Railway Station, the Smith’s Row gallery would be moving to the former Station Master’s house in the near future. Planning permission was given for the change of use in August.
The Station Master’s house is a grade one listed building and since its closure in July 1995, following a drugs raid, has been unoccupied and has fallen into a state of disrepair and is now on the ‘at risk’ register.
The idea is for the Smith’s Row gallery to take over the house and associated buildings and become a creative centre for Suffolk’s art community.
“The top floor of the Station Master’s House runs right along the Cambridge-bound platform. This currently, has no facilities and I am sure many people have shivered on the platform in winter. We would open up all the old waiting rooms as a gallery and craft shop, which would be free of charge and, funding pending, open from 7.20am for early morning commuters.
“The first floor would be dedicated to studio space for artists. There is a critical need for studios in the region particularly with the regeneration of Cambridge and we want to keep talented artists, especially the young, in the area.
“The ground floor would be dedicated to a large community workshop/meeting room with a communal kitchen. This would open out onto the garden, providing a very flexible space. Art and gardening activities at the Station Master’s House and garden would provide a safe environment for our work with vulnerable adults and children as well as art events. At the moment we have to hire a space for our workshops for children and adults with learning and physical disabilities as our current building is deemed to have a fire refuge for one wheelchair user only. The Station Master’s House would be much more suitable and have dedicated parking.”
Alison said the building, with its exquisite architecture, was built by Sancton Wood in 1847, at the height of the Victorian railway building boom. Sancton Wood specialised in building stations and also designed Ipswich and Cambridge stations.
When the station was unveiled it was described as one of the finest stations in the country. “To mark the opening a special train was laid on from Ipswich and was 22 carriages long to carry all the people who wanted to marvel at this latest architectural achievement dedicated to rail travel, which was regarded as the wonder of the age.
“It needed two engines to pull the train and they had two brass bands to welcome its arrival. This was a significant occasion – a real celebration – and what we want to do is restore people’s pride in their railway station and to reach out to the broader community with a varied programme of events both on the station and on the trains.”
Natalie adds that the current exhibition at Smith’s Row, in the town centre, was their version of the station’s brass band as it serves to draw attention to this ambitious project and to tap into people’s memories of the station and its role in the life of Bury over the years.
“It provides a look at the station’s past and provides an overview on the historical link between art and the rail industry. It will give some context to the proposed regeneration of the station site.
“We also want people’s comments and opinions. Historically, the station has played an integral role in the town. It was a key part of the economic life of the town. It was a key site for trade, essential for the distribution of goods and an important departure point for troops stationed at the local barracks.
“Of course, it brought people into Bury on market day and it continues to be an essential part of the working life of many people.” Alison said that research had proved that rail travel had become increasingly popular.
“Over two million journeys were made on the Ipswich to Cambridge line in 2013-14, 578,000 of these at Bury St Edmunds. An additional 13.1 million journeys were made through Ipswich and Cambridge stations and numbers are predicted to continue to rise.
“Smiths Row’s plan is to bring some of that magic to our rural train line. It’s a large-scale, very ambitious project, so it won’t happen immediately but in order for it work, and to be as relevant as it needs to be, it needs the input from the community, from the people who will actually use it.
“We want this new gallery space to be an integral part of the community – to really be an important part of the life of the town, as the station itself has been.”
Art in Transition: Reimagining Bury St Edmunds’ Railway Station runs at the current Smith’s Row Gallery in the town centre until October 31.