Private Viewing: Wingfield is an artistic centre that deserves to be celebrated

Framlingham girl, Polly Gibbons(left) joins top of the bill Clare Teal (centre) and Jaqui Dankworth

Framlingham girl, Polly Gibbons(left) joins top of the bill Clare Teal (centre) and Jaqui Dankworth for the last number on stage at Wingfield Arts Jazz at Fram in 2004

Arts editor Andrew Clarke looks at a hidden treasure tucked away behind Suffolk’s hedgerows

Wingfield Barns is a venue and an arts institution that refuses to die. It’s a wonderful artistic oasis tucked away in the middle of the Suffolk countryside which offers some of the best exhibition and performance spaces in the county.

It’s strength lies not only in its beautiful location but also in its adaptability. It offers some of the highest quality exhibition space in the region. The main centre, The Great Barn, is one of the few spaces in Suffolk that offers temperature and humidity control to a standard that allows international touring exhibitions. In the past it has hosted exhibitions which included works by Picasso, David Hockney, photographer Lee Miller and Mattise.

For many years it also played host to the Wingfield Art Awards, a collaboration with Suffolk County Council, which invited sixth form art students to submit outstanding work to form part of an exhibition which not only celebrated young creative Suffolk but gave one lucky student a modest cash prize to take away to college.

Recently the venue has played host to an increasing number of theatre and music performances which again underline the versatility of the Barns complex.

Wingfield Barns has become something of an open secret in recent years but it deserves to be much more than that. Part of the problem in recent years is that Wingfield has had something of a chequered history which has seen owners change, staff members come and go and eventually the local authority Mid Suffolk District Council stepping in to ensure that this community facility did not disappear.

Today Wingfield Barns is a community interest company (CiC) but it started off as a private business, Wingfield Arts, run by lecturer and entrepeneur Ian Chance, which started life in 1981.

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It was originally run from Wingfield College, Ian Chance’s home, next door to the Barns site, and expanded into the barns complex in the late 1990s as Ian Chance renovated the semi-derelict medieval structures.

Wingfield Arts staged concerts across rural Suffolk, using a network of local churches as venues, and brought a host of first class musicians to perform for local audiences on their doorstep. They also utilised professional local talent – giving local musicians opportunities to perform close to home.

As Wingfield Arts became increasingly successful so did the scale of their events. Wingfield Arts, under the stewardship of Ian Chance, reached its height in the 1990s when it held four open-air concerts at Framlingham Castle each August. The concerts were divided up into Opera at Fram, Folk At Fram, World At Fram and the ever-popular Jazz at Fram. They were family-friendly events which brought together an ecclectic mix of world-class talent.

During a recent interview with Suffolk-born jazz singer Polly Gibbons she was reminiscing about sharing a stage as a teenager with jazz legends Jacqui Dankworth and Claire Teal. She said: “Jazz at Fram and all those Wingfield gigs at Framlingham Castle were just so wonderful. It’s a real pity they don’t happen any more because they provided such a focus for the area each summer. It was something we all looked forward to.”

After Ian Chance left the area to work as a curator to work with the Lee Miller archive at Farley Farm in East Sussex, Wingfield Arts, struggled to maintain its presence in an increasingly competitive Suffolk arts world.

It closed in 2006 before reopening in 2009 as a CiC under the stewardship of local champions Geoff Doggett and Fred Barter.

The idea behind the re-birth was to take Wingfield back to its roots as a community-focussed organisation. They also wanted to be an enabler rather than a promoter. They had first-class facilities which they wanted to make available for the people of north Suffolk to use.

Theatre groups, both amateur and professional, have started to use the space and the gallery space is also well used by professional artists and by organisations like The Royal Photographic Society and The Suffolk Monochrome Group. Links have been preserved with the past as Wingfield still hosts The International Miniprint exhibition which is running alongside an exhibition by Suffolk artist Rosemary Elliott which will continue until August 31.