Firstsite: bouncing back from past controversies to become a vital community hub

The Colchester art gallery celebrates its tenth anniversary this year

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Read more about the Art Fund Museum of the Year Award 2021 here

Firstsite may be celebrating its tenth anniversary with a nomination for Museum of the Year 2021, but the future of the Colchester art gallery once looked highly precarious. When it opened in 2011, local press derided the distinctive crescent-shaped building designed by the Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly, dubbing it “the golden banana”. In 2015, Arts Council England threatened to withdraw core funding if the gallery did not overhaul its business model.

“We were in a really terrible place when I took over,” admits Sally Shaw, who became Firstsite’s director in 2016. However, she did not share local opinion about Viñoly’s controversial building. “I’ve always thought it was amazing,” she says, adding that “one of the reasons why I wanted to do the job was because I couldn’t see a single reason why it shouldn’t work. It’s a weird shape and it’s difficult to work in, but that means you can’t do anything like anybody else—and that’s good.”

Firstsite, designed by the Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly © Jayne Lloyd

Challenging convention lies at the heart of Firstsite’s ethos. What other contemporary art venue has a Roman mosaic embedded in its floor? Shaw says that at first she had “no clear plan” for the arts centre. Instead, she was guided by Colchester and its many communities. “I originally trained as a public artist, which is all about reading your context and using that as material,” she explains. “So I just went and met loads of people, especially the ones who hated Firstsite because they cared enough to get angry about the place. We didn’t talk about art for a very long time; instead, I asked them: ‘What’s happening in your world? What’s keeping you up at night?’ And it turned out that there was a great deal of overlap between their list of concerns and mine.”

Alongside fulfilling its brief as a centre for contemporary art by partnering with the Arts Council Collection and mounting a programme of exhibitions by artists such as Antony Gormley, Lubaina Himid, Grayson Perry and Gillian Wearing, Firstsite also acted on these local conversations to forge active and ongoing relationships with the surrounding communities. These include refugee groups, schools, charities and the NHS, which for the past three years has sponsored Holiday Fun, a programme converting the gallery’s restaurant into a canteen during the school holidays that offers thousands of free meals and free art and sports activities to children in need.

Sally Shaw, director, Firstsite © Marc Atkins/Art Fund 2021

“Our overall strategy for the past five years has been to ask, ‘How can we help?’ And then to respond with creativity and recourses beyond people’s expectations,” Shaw says.

This policy paid dividends during the pandemic. At the start of the first UK lockdown in March 2020, Shaw immediately handed the building over to a local charity, Community 360, which used it as a centre for distributing welfare packs. At the same time, Firstsite reached out to a national and international audience with a series of four free home activity packs with contributions from more than 50 artists, including Jeremy Deller, Ryan Gander, Chantal Joffe, Sarah Lucas and Cornelia Parker. “I just asked everyone I knew and they all said yes,” Shaw says. The online packs were downloaded by more than 92,000 households worldwide, from Brazil to New Zealand.

After the death of George Floyd, Firstsite commissioned the artist Elsa James to make a new downloadable poster enabling the public to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and last autumn it held Super Black, an online festival celebrating Black culture in Colchester and Essex (originally scheduled as a physical event for March 2020). Meanwhile, throughout the pandemic, the Holiday Fun project was ramped up to provide more free children’s meals over the past year than in the previous three.

The Great Big Art Exhibition at Firstsite © Anna Lukala

Launching its tenth anniversary in lockdown did not deter Firstsite from making cultural waves. In January, it collaborated with major UK museums to deliver The Great Big Art Exhibition, encouraging people to create any form of art for display in their windows and outdoor spaces at home. Every two weeks, a leading artist—from Anish Kapoor to David Shrigley—chose a different theme for the nation to explore. This summer, the gallery opened Michael Landy’s Welcome to Essex, a major exhibition on the recent history of Landy’s home county and its much-stereotyped portrayal in popular culture. It is also hosting Art for Life, a project commissioned by the NHS that features pieces by health workers reflecting on their personal experiences of the pandemic.

All these initiatives underline Shaw’s assertion that “the point of a gallery is that it can do that job of listening in, in a very different way”. She says: “What we need now is strange and unusual contemporary solutions to deeply complex problems—and if you can’t do that in an art gallery, then where can you?”

What would Firstsite do with the £100,000 top prize if it won Museum of the Year? Characteristically, Shaw does not have a pat answer. “It would enable us to slow down and to invest more in the artists we work with,” she says. “They do an incredible job and we need to respect and pay them for it properly.” It is an aim that would undoubtedly boost Firstsite’s popularity within the artistic community—and have ripples far beyond it.

Michael Landy's Welcome to Essex at Firstsite gallery, Colchester Photo: Jayne Lloyd

Must-see show at Firstsite, according to its director, Sally Shaw: Michael Landy’s Welcome to Essex exhibition

“When Michael said he wanted to do a show about Essex, I knew that it had to be for our anniversary year. He takes this idea of Essex and tries to do something with it. But he doesn’t then sit in judgement; he loves it and brings it all together with intense interest in this incredibly careful and meticulous way. It was really interesting to watch him do the same to Essex as he did for Break Down [Landy’s 2001 project in which he systematically documented and then destroyed all 7,227 of his possessions]—to take [a concept] apart slowly and bit by bit, in this granular way, and then put it all back together again for the show. It’s this incredible conversation that all comes from the area; it’s like looking at the landscape.”

• Read about the other shortlisted museums here

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