Colchester’s Firstsite gallery embraces the local community

Director of Firstsite in Colchester Anthony Roberts.

Director of Firstsite in Colchester Anthony Roberts.

Five years after Firstsite, Colchester’s £25m state-of-the-art gallery, opened its doors, two years late, and after years of increasingly bitter and polarised controversy, it’s now in the process of re-inventing itself as a community-friendly venue where people can meet and perhaps bump into something thrilling and unexpected.

Firstsite in Colchester.

Firstsite in Colchester.

The architect of this change of philosophy has been interim director Anthony Roberts, long-time Colchester resident and artistic director of Colchester Arts Centre who has brought of the philosophy of the Arts Centre to the vast spaces of Firstsite’s exhibition halls.

Anthony Roberts says that all arts venues need to be grounded in the community and need to respond to the needs of the locality. Any arts venture imposed on a town will invariably fail, it needs to grow organically and interact with its audience and be part of the social fabric of the town.

While Anthony admits that Firstsite had a difficult birth he feels that Colchester needs and wants the benefits that a world-class contemporary gallery can bring to the town and the region.

“It hasn’t been dropped on the town from the outside. It’s a considered replacement for the old gallery which used to be based at The Minories. In 20 or 30 years time people will look back and be amazed that there was such a fuss when it first opened. I’m convinced it will become a treasured part of the character of the town.

Director of Firstsite in Colchester Anthony Roberts.

Director of Firstsite in Colchester Anthony Roberts.

“When work needs to be done to repair or extend the building people will be up in arms about changing such a distinctive and much-loved part of the local landscape – but we’ve got to get to that position first and that can be difficult.”

He said that when the venue first-opened some mistakes had been made when it came to integrating the gallery into peoples lives.

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“But, we’ve changed the public perception of the gallery. It’s now much more accessible.

“As I said, it was a difficult birth and like a baby it was learning to walk and taking small faltering steps and you wouldn’t criticise a baby for falling over. Like a young child, the gallery learned from its mistakes and is now much more confident.”

Firstsite in Colchester.

Firstsite in Colchester.

After the Arts Council withdrew its guaranteed funding NPO (National Portfolio Organisation) in February last year, it was metaphorically admitted to an artistic version of the special care baby unit and it’s future looked uncertain.

Firstsite’s then artistic director Matthew Rowe resigned and in April Anthony Roberts, a man with 25 years experience of running the much-loved, cutting-edge, community minded Colchester Arts Centre was brought in to turn the gallery around.

While he is modest about his input, saying that the gallery was just in need of re-focussing, it is clear that he is proud that he has been able to turn it around.

Exhibitions have changed, visitor numbers are up and the Arts Council have re-instated funding pledging more than £1.6 million over the next two years, thereby securing its short-term future.

Director of Firstsite in Colchester Anthony Roberts withone of the James Dodds pieces of art.

Director of Firstsite in Colchester Anthony Roberts withone of the James Dodds pieces of art.

The pivotal thing that Anthony Roberts achieved was to form a bridge between local artists and the contemporary art scene at both a national and international level.

The current exhibition featuring Wivenhoe artist James Dodds is a brilliant example of the new-look programme.

Dodds is a contemporary artist with an international reputation but, not only does he still live in the locality, his work remains resolutely focussed on the Essex coast, waterways and the traditional boats of the region.

In addition to the James Dodds exhibition Firstsite is also hosting a soundscape exhibition which plays with the notion of sound and includes a video of three Sirens singing on a revolving platform against a backdrop of classical columns, a thunder-clap broken down and re-recorded by a full orchestra, a collection of glasses for listening at walls with and a box with head-phones which offers what amounts to an astonishing radio play told entirely with sound-effects. You are walking through a wooded area, complete with the snap of twigs underfoot, when you become aware of an argument in a house up ahead. The sound of shouting, screaming and smashing crockery is suddenly punctuated with the sound of shot being fired followed by silence. After a while the sounds of the night are disturbed by the arrival of car, doors opening and a phone ringing inside the house.

Although you are blind, on the outside of the drama, the eaves-dropping nature of the piece is completely engrossing.

It’s this combination of engaging different media and the inclusion of local artists with critically acclaimed reputations that has transformed Firstsite and has brought the Arts Council back on board.

He has also invited other local artists to exhibit their work alongside the main exhibitions. “The beauty of this gallery is that there is so much space. It’s such a wonderful place to display work. You can hang work or place pieces which not only show them off to their best advantage but act as a contrast to something else just around the corner.”

An example of this is the ethereal Sirens song which follows the visitor from the soundscape display around James Dodds examination of boatbuilding. The sea links the two exhibits but the different media forms a fascinating but complementary contrast.

It seems that the days of mocking Firstsite, calling it the Golden Banana because of its distinctive design, may be over.

“I think that now people are coming through the doors, having a coffee, meeting friends, wandering around looking at the work, the place is alive with possibilities. It’s now part of the community. It’s somewhere where you encounter art and relate to it on your own terms and that’s how it should be.

“I have been a huge supporter of the ambition of the gallery. To dare to dream that a town of our size can have a gallery of international standing is amazing. To have the vision to build something this beautiful to house great works of art is to be celebrated. This is our generation’s gift to Colchester future. This is a gallery which has the capability of displaying the greatest work in the world. Obviously it won’t be every day of the week but Firstsite will have works by Warhol, Monet, Rodin and Picasso on its walls at some time, of that I am sure – along with works from great artists who aren’t even born yet.”

He said that given time Firstsite will help define Colchester’s identity not only locally but across the UK. He added that anything new is always had to assimilate at first because we, as humans, are naturally drawn to things we know and love. Embracing something new requires a leap of faith. When things are brand new there is some wariness. It’s the same with everything new art, new music new architecture but then five-to-ten years down the line everyone will claim that they loved it at the start.”

He said that he had no hesitation in taking on becoming Firstsite’s interim director. “The problems of running a venue are the same whatever the size. It’s just that the scale is different. The Colchester Arts Centre is a small venue but the problems are exactly the same. It’s about getting people to engage and involve themselves in the wider world of art and to feel comfortable doing it.

“And it can be done in all sorts of ways. One of reasons Colchester Arts Centre works is because the programme is a balance between a variety of traditional art forms and some cutting-edge new stuff. I do think it is important to have a balance.

“I like to think what we are doing here is the visual equivalent of the John Peel show. He was a great East Anglian talent with a national profile. He was able to introduce people to extraordinary new work, new exciting music. Some of it didn’t last, some went on to have an amazing resonance later on but either way you trusted the guy. He made you feel comfortable engaging with new work and that’s we should be doing.”

And what of the future? Anthony believes that arts venues work best when they are social spaces and he wants Firstsite to develop more of a reputation for being a place where people meet.

“If people feel comfortable then they will interact with the work. It’s a question of being happy, being comfortable in the space and letting people have a connection with the work.

“We need to make this place inviting and that work has started. It’s about freshening up the web-site, it’s about the film nights, the learning events, it’s about the coffee shop and it about the shows. It’s about the whole package.

“At the end of the day it’s about putting a bit of mojo into the operation. It’s about being excited about the programme and getting everyone else excited about it too. It’s about making people want to come down here and see what’s happening. It’s about meeting your friends here and sharing the experience.”

As Anthony’s term as interim director ends, he leaves the venue in much better shape. With the Arts Council back on board, the hunt is now on for someone with vision to build on his vision and take it forward.

“It’s all about confidence. I have programmed it into next year, so there’s a buffer there. It’s time for me for me to head back to Colchester Arts centre and let someone else take over.”

James Dodds Wood to Water and the Listening exhibitions run at Firstsite until February 14.

PANEL: Successes and challenges

For Anthony Roberts the easy bit has been getting people through the door – which was something of a surprise. “When I came on board I thought reaching out to the public would be the difficult thing considering the bad publicity the place had received but that proved to be relatively easy.

“What was much harder than I anticipated was putting a business plan together and that was because I’m not used to working in such a big institution. What was gratifying was being able to bring all the funders together, Essex County Council, Colchester Borough Council and the Arts Council and get them talking to one another and have them all singing off the same hymn sheet.

“Yes, we did have to jump through a lot of hoops because there was a lot of nervousness about the future but we managed to convince them that Firstsite not only had a future but deserved a good future. We now have some unity of purpose.”

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