Using a Ricoh GRD III and a Nikon DSLR to photograph streets, people, architecture and anything else that catches my eye.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Contemporary Art Gallery in Colchester

Over the last six or seven years, I have watched with interest the construction and opening of a new art venue in my home town of Colchester. Actually, at the time of construction, I lived about three minutes from the site; so I was able to see the project slowly take shape.  I stress the word 'slowly', as the project ran into many major dificulties, eventually leading to the main building contractor pulling off site, which left the building half built for over a year.

The building itself was a very contemporay style, designed by Uruguayan architect, Rafael Viñoly. Bearing in mind that Colchester (the oldest recorded town in Britain) is quite traditional architecturally; controversy would follow the new art gallery from day one.

The building is based around a tubular steel frame, cladded in golden aluminium. The shape of the building is all curves and diagonals, based around a huge arc shaped floor plan. There are very few straight or vertical walls. (controversy again)

Above is a CGI design image of the proposed gallery.

The financial cost of the project rose year by year to somewhere in the region of £28m, which caused constant outrage amongst those people who were very much against the project. The timing of this art gallery wasn't great considering the UK and the rest of the world had just fallen on it's knees in debt. Local town's people believed that this kind of money could be spent on schools, buses, shops, carparking etc etc...

Below are a few photos I took of the construction around the time that the project ground to a halt.

A particular local newspaper took it upon itself to wage a weekly war of words against the new gallery and anything to do with it; with letters of hatred and dismay from 'ordinary people'. The same paper still prints controversial facts as often as possible.

The local MP, Sir Bob Russell, has been publicly against the project from the start; regularly speaking his views on the art gallery with statements like "a waste of money that should never have been built",  "a waste of taxpayers' money"  and "Those popping in to use the toilet are not even spending a penny - it is free".

It took over a year before the building work would be restarted, with the construction firm Mace Group Ltd. in control. They did a fantastic job of completing the project for opening to public in 2011. Incidentally, Mace built the Shard in London, and according to some reports, are currently involved in the new 'tallest building in the world' - 1.2 km high Kingdom Tower.

The new art gallery was named Firstsite, and was opened with a fine exhibition of amazing modern work from world famous artists including Ai Weiwei, Subodh Gupta, Barbara Hepworth, Sarah Lucas, Aleksandra Mir, Henry Moore, Grayson Perry, Robert Smithson, J. M. W. Turner, Andy Warhol, Rebecca Warren and Bill Woodrow

There have been new exhibitions ever since opening on a six monthly basis; attracting both genuine public interest in contemporary art and general bewildered eyebrow raising and giggling. The gallery is drawing around 150,000 people a year, although it has been suggested that a fair percentage of these visitors spend ten minutes looking around before heading back to the shops.

I have always supported the idea of this new gallery, and feel that it is a welcome addition to my town. I have visited many times and am always surprised by the artwork and exhibitions which have been presented. The building is an oasis of quiet space, inhabited by modern thought provoking artwork. I  personally have been enlightened in some ways and my mind has been given much visual food for thought. On several occasions I have researched into some of the artists, which has led on to discovering whole new avenues of thought. Of course, I also admit that I have found some of the exhibits a little lacking. I have found myself quite critical of some styles of work.  This in itself is quite natural and all part of the process.

The vast majority of the general public may well prefer to go shopping in town and have lunch in MacDonalds, and not be in the slightest bit interested in contemporary art. But I do sincerely believe that if you make such art forms freely accessable to the public, then you will have a postive effect on a small percentage of people. Colchester is a university town, and attracts younger people on an international basis; these are creative people who can be influenced by the exhibitions.  Also, younger children can benefit from being introduced to all kinds of art, film and theatre.

I believe it may take many years before Firstsite gallery will be truly accepted by the town's folk, but this is always the way with such grand schemes. As this part of the town is regenerated, with the new gallery at the centre hub, then slowly but surely, art will win out.  The Firstsite gallery is a unique and bold centre of contemporary art, and should be promoted properly by the town's leaders as a focal point for the town.


The building itself is a great place for photography. It has lovely shape and form which creates some wonderful architectural abstracts. I have spent several hours just pointing my lens at the complex geometry of lines and arcs. Here is a small selection taken on the outside. I will post some internal images in the near future.


s.c said...

Perhaps it has the same effect as the museum from Frank Gehry in Bilbao. The whole neighborhood got a facelift in the end. And as always after a time the pain about the budget is forgotten and the people are proud to have such a building around. Example the Sydney Opera House by Jorn Utzon.

Bill Wellham said...

Sydney Opera House is a great example. It takes time to change cities and towns, but it takes even longer to change peoples' hearts and minds.

Michael Gatton said...

Your architectural photos are as usual stunningly good. Love these. I'm partial to modern/contemporary styles, and I think the juxtaposition of old and new has it's own aesthetic appeal above and beyond some strict adherence to a particular style - but maybe I'm biased by the New York environment.

Bill Wellham said...

Thanks Mike. The good thing about photographing buildings is that they don't move, and are happy to be photographed any day of the week. :)