Colchester: New centre for contemporary art, opens September 2011

PUBLISHED: 17:40 22 September 2011 | UPDATED: 20:01 20 February 2013

Colchester: New centre for contemporary art, opens September 2011

Colchester: New centre for contemporary art, opens September 2011

Colchester's jaw-dropping new centre for contemporary art, firstsite, opens this month as part of what promises to be a new dawn for culture and the arts in Essex...

Colchesters jaw-dropping new centre for contemporary art, firstsite, opens this month as part of what promises to be a new dawnfor culture and the arts in Essex.

Designing a striking new world-class arts venue without trespassing on the ancient landscape of Britains oldest recorded town was a challenge, even for an architect with 45 years of experience. Rafael Violy, the celebrated Uraguayan architect recognised that firstsite needed a strong architectural presence. This is an important new cultural destination for the town, and in fact for the region, he explains.

Indeed the golden arc that he has imagined and that has eventually been brought to life in the St Botolphs quarter ready for its opening on Sunday, September 25, gives Colchester a new home for firstsite, the towns impressive visual arts organisation, part of the Plus Tate network of 18 world-class gallery spaces in the UK.

The new firstsite building is 3,200 square metres of gallery space on a site bounded by the original Roman wall of Colchester, with scope to host major international exhibitions, a display space to showcase works from the University of Essexs internationally important collection of Latin American art, learning rooms for children, students andcommunity groups, and a 190-seat auditorium for film screenings, lectures and events.

The life-changing power of art is being brought to hundreds of thousands of people with this new building, says Katherine Wood, director of firstsite. Its a dynamic new hub for Colchester, drawing visitors from all over the worldto an exciting showcase for the contemporary visual arts.

Like contemporary art itself, firstsite will be ever-transforming. There will be no permanent exhibition, save for the newly-restored Berryfield Roman Mosaic, which dates from around 200AD. Unearthed in 1923 right where firstsite now stands, this fascinating mosaic formed part of the floor of a Roman townhouse. After very many years on display in Colchester Castle, the mosaic has been painstakingly restored and returned to the site of its original home. One great advantage of its new location is that visitors will be able to see the mosaic for free as therewill be no admission charge to firstsite.

But its not just the mosaic that harks back to Colchesters cultural past every aspect of firstsite has its roots in the cultural heritage of the town. Rafael explains: The firstsite building responds to the traces of archaeological remains that lie beneath; its curve echoes the crescent of ancient trees in the garden of East Hill House, and the landscaping preserves the path connecting the Ice House to the Garden Folly both buildings important to Colchesters architectural heritage. The form that evolved from this approach resulted in a frontage that sweeps towards a new public park to the south, bounded by the remains of the historic Roman wall.

Inside, as is only right and proper, firstsites first exhibition, aptly-named Camulodunum, celebrates Colchesters character as a modern centre built on ancient foundations. The exhibition features new work commissioned from a list of international artists, including Aleksandra Mir and Danh Vo, and iconic artworks from all over the world, including selected works by Henry Moore, Robert Smithson, JMW Turner and Andy Warhol on loan from theTate, V&A, Arts Council England and the University of Essex. The opening programme also includes a major commission by Colchester-based artist Sarah Sabin, who has been working with firstsite and University College Londons Institute of Archaeology since 2008 to produce a new work that responds to the process of building on ancient land.

This is an important project and one that has already attracted the admiration of Arts Council England. firstsite has demonstrated ambition, passion and flair with its opening programme, adds Helen Lax, Arts Council Englands regional director. The Camulodunum exhibition is a perfect mix demonstrating firstsites aim to be locally relevant and internationally significant.

Of course, Colchester is already known for its cultural life. The Mercury Theatre and Colchester Arts Centre are well respected across the county and the region, and the new firstsite will just add to the towns cultural credentials and help to grow the local economy, says Colchester Borough Councillor Paul Smith. firstsites opening is a crucial milestone in the boroughs plans to establish opportunities to provide lifelong learning and skills development for all. firstsite will provide a new cultural experience and fun for everyone, and act as a dynamic social hub for the town.

It will also help to draw more visitors to Colchester and the multi-million-pound in funding raised by Colchester Borough Council in partnership with Arts Council England, the East of England Development Agency, Essex County Council and the University of Essex is sure to be a sound investment in the cultural and social future of Colchester and the surrounding area, as well as its economic growth.

firstsite will draw thousands to Colchester, adds Paul, boosting tourism and retail and helping to regenerate the St Botolphs quarter of the town.

The chance to see ground-breaking contemporary art in a stunning new building designed by a world-renowned architect in the oldest town in Britain is one that no art-lover could reasonably refuse.

Time to visit?

High Street
After September 25, firstsite will be open from Monday to Saturday, 10am to 7pm, and on Sunday, 10am to 5pm. Admission is free. For more information,visit

Camulodunum: the opening exhibition at firstsite

September 25, 2011 to January 22, 2012
Taking its title from the original Roman name of Colchester, Camulodunum features major commissions to British and international artists and draws on the towns important collection of Romano-British artefacts including coins, ceramics and other aspects of Colchesters archaeology, shown alongside artworks that consider the treatment of objects in the museum and contemporary culture as future historical record.

Among these are works by Ai Weiwei, Subodh Gupta, Barbara Hepworth, Sarah Lucas, Henry Moore, Cildo Meireles, Grayson Perry, Robert Smithson, Bill Woodrow and Andy Warhol.

The exhibition includes new commissions to four international artists Michaela Eichwald, Aleksandra Mir, Karin Ruggaber and Danh Vo. Mirs encyclopaedic HELLO Colchester will link 100 found images to a photograph of a local soldier meeting Queen Elizabeth II, reflecting Colchesters long history as a garrison town, from pre-Roman times to the present day. Danh Vos work features some of the first fragments completed as part of a two-year undertaking to fabricate a full scale replica of New Yorks Statue of Liberty.

In partnership with the University of Essex collection of art from Latin America, works by two Latin American artists will be featured in the opening season at firstsite.

A series of Zero Centavo and Zero Cent coins by the Brazilian conceptual artist Cildo Meireles will be shown, alongside original Iron Age and Roman coins.

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