Firstsite gallery in Colchester wins £1.6m funding from Arts Council

Firstsite in Colchester

Firstsite in Colchester - Credit: Archant

Arts Council England has pledged more than £1.6million of funding to Colchester’s firstsite gallery over the next two years – securing its medium-term future.

Firstsite, Colchester.

Firstsite, Colchester. - Credit: Andrew Partridge

The controversial exhibition space will be given £814,512 each year until April 2018 by the funding body, under special monitoring arrangements.

However the Arts Council confirmed firstsite would not be invited back into its prestigious National Portfolio of Organisations (NPO) until at least 2018, following a decision in February to remove the gallery from the list over concerns on its business plans and governance.

At that time it gave firstsite a one-year funding deal, which has now been extended to match the NPO funding cycle. In 2018, firstsite will be able to apply to join the NPO again.

The Arts Council’s National Council said in a statement yesterday firstsite had made good progress in improving its operations, although it had further work to do to ensure its future sustainability.

“Substantial progress” included the development of a business plan with improved financial controls, and the recruitment of new board members including a chairman, two local authority representatives and individuals with financial expertise to help enhance its governance structure.

The funding, alongside grants given by Colchester Borough and Essex County councils, will help to keep the gallery open, find a new artistic director and make other changes to its business model.

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The Arts Council announced a similar deal for the English National Opera (ENO) yesterday.

Darren Henley, chief executive of Arts Council England, said: “Both organisations are making good progress in addressing their respective challenges, but there is more to do if both ENO and firstsite are to become resilient enough to thrive artistically and economically in future.

“The Arts Council’s role is to ensure we get the best value for the taxpayer’s money by investing in well-run companies who delight audiences with brilliant work.

“Both ENO and firstsite are capable of extraordinary artistic work, and we look forward to seeing further improvements in the governance and business models of both organisations.”

Anthony Roberts, interim managing director at firstsite, said: “We are delighted at today’s decision by Arts Council England to award us two years funding.

“It has been a challenging few months for Firstsite but we can now look forward to a much brighter future.

“Although we still have lots of hard work ahead of us we are confident our future planning will enable us to build a sustainable organisation.

“The support of our funders is vital to what we do and I offer my personal thanks to Arts Council England, Colchester Borough Council and Essex County Council for their continued support.”

Firstsite, dubbed locally the Golden Banana for its unusual architecture, sparked controversy when first proposed with a number of critics saying Colchester could not sustain a national gallery.

Since it opened in September 2011, at a cost of £25m, it continued to cause debate over visitor numbers and ongoing funding.

Tim Young, cabinet member for culture at Colchester Borough Council, said: “I’m very pleased the Arts Council has confirmed the funding for the next couple of years, which is more important than being an NPO – though that is also important.

“We needed to secure the funding to secure its future for the medium-term.

“I pay credit to the work of Anthony Roberts, he has created the conditions where firstsite can move forward.

“We as an administration and the Labour group were opposed to firstsite, but once built and open we wanted it to be successful – and we must continue to drive that forward.

“The potential is there. We have seen the place heaving at exhibitions, and it will attract exhibitions of national and regional importance as well as local interest.

“I hope firstsite will get NPO status in the future, we want to attract visitors from across the country and abroad.”

A head hunter has been employed to recruit a permanent director to take over from Mr Roberts, while gallery staff have launched a petition against job cuts and an employee restructure.

Essex county councillor Roger Hirst, a firstsite trustee, added: “I am really pleased to hear about the decision to award firstsite additional funding.

“We have been working closely in partnership to raise the profile of the gallery, and this funding will help build on the success of recent exhibitions and allow firstsite to establish its position in the community for arts in Colchester.”

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