Visiting Firstsite: A vibrant and inclusive art gallery in the heart of Essex

Updated 15 July 2022

Art gallery, community hub and winner of Art Fund Museum of the Year 2021 – Firstsite in Colchester is a special place. We took our Art Partners on a visit to find out what makes it tick.

This striking, crescent-shaped gallery in Essex was the winner of Art Fund Museum of the Year in 2021. On a bright spring day earlier this year, we took our Art Partners along for a visit.

Art Partners are Art Fund’s closest supporters, whose generosity enables us to help museums like Firstsite thrive. Together we explored what makes this place so special – and it was easy to see why the Museum of the Year judges were so impressed.

An art gallery for everyone

There are two particularly striking things about Firstsite that our visit made clear. Firstly, its unwavering dedication to the community it serves; and secondly, the passionate team of staff and artists who have shaped what it is today – a place for everyone in the area to explore art and culture.

The first thing you notice is the welcoming nature of the space. We were all immediately struck by the vast, bright white ceilings and delightful use of colour. Key to the inside design, colour is used here as a tool to create a warm, inviting atmosphere and split up the space for people to navigate easily.

Throughout the day we explored Firstsite’s journey to becoming the thriving arts space it is today, learning more about the impact of winning Art Fund Museum of the Year, the creation of the gallery’s striking permanent installations and the development of its community-focused exhibitions.

Making a difference

Firstsite was something of a trailblazer when it came to pivoting its activities during the Covid-19 pandemic, quickly responding to the needs of its community.

Art Fund director Jenny Waldman touched on this in her introduction to the day, as she took Art Partners on a whistlestop tour of Firstsite’s Museum of the Year ‘winner’s story’. Supporting artists through lockdown, working with refugee groups and initiating an exhibition in the windows of people’s homes in support of the NHS were just some of the great projects that solidified Firstsite’s win.

And, perhaps most strikingly, the transformation of what was originally meant to be a lobster restaurant into a space for free school meals proved testament to Firstsite’s commitment to the community, something director Sally Shaw spoke about in detail.

Shaw spoke about the dramatic journey the gallery has been on over the last few years, from being near closure in 2016 to the transformative years of Covid-19 and taking home the Art Fund Museum of the Year prize in 2021. And, having just come from a meeting about Colchester’s recent achievement of city status, Shaw explored how Firstsite winning the prize helped to influence that major triumph for the area.

Shaw talked our Art Partners through the political landscape of Colchester and the integral role that Firstsite plays in working with people from all backgrounds with all kinds of political views. The team works hard to connect with everyone in and around Colchester, with inclusivity underpinning everything they do. This common thread was evident as we moved through the gallery, learning more about Firstsite’s programme of exhibitions and the works of art on display.

Art and Essex

First on a tour of Firstsite’s permanent installations with Programme Manager Kirsty White was Essex Man (after Collet) by Michael Landy.

This striking sculpture explores historical stereotypes associated with Essex. The MDF paper feel of Essex Man gives you the feeling it’s been plucked from the pages of a giant newspaper – and the choice of material is a reference to the media’s stereotyping of a ‘culturally barren’ individual as synonymous with Essex.

A large-scale collage on the wall leads you further into the building. This is The Essex Way, also by Landy, which explores highlights of Essex’s landscape and culture. Landy went on a number of walks with local artists, politicians and celebrities to make this creative map of Essex that follows locations along the sea wall.

Firstsite’s challenging of media stereotypes about Essex highlights their commitment to championing local heritage. It was fascinating to hear about the gallery’s involvement in the positive changes being made to the area’s image, such as the landmark campaign to have the phrase ‘Essex girl’ removed from the dictionary.

Family creativity

Following the building’s curved walls, we stepped inside the vibrant space for the exhibition Keep Being Amazing.

Programme Manager Sue Hogan explained how the exhibition began, born from the gallery’s Holiday Fun programme – where local families, particularly those in need of extra support, can participate in shared family learning. The project champions being creative, having fun and learning together and led to this beautiful display of works.

The dazzling frontage of the exhibition was designed by artist Morag Myerscough, known for her vivid use of colour and site-specific works. The first room you enter features work by the likes of Paula Rego, Tracey Emin and many more celebrated artists, beautifully complemented by the work created by local families.

We were also treated to a talk from textiles artist Celia Pym, who worked with families to create a piece for the exhibition, Where Holes Happen, which explores the stories behind mended clothing.

Art by The Singh Twins:

Unpicking the Indian textile trade

Our next journey was into the dazzling exhibition of work by artists and sisters The Singh Twins, entitled Slaves of Fashion.

We were introduced to the exhibition by Programme Manager Emma Howe, who explained how the Singh Twins explore the complex narratives surrounding the British Empire, enslavement, conflict and luxury consumerism. The core part of the exhibition is made up of a series of large-scale lightboxes, depicting figures from history, religion and current affairs.

Colourful, atmospheric and thought-provoking, the exhibition explores India’s historical textile trade, intertwined with complicated issues relating to human rights and politics.

From its intriguing works of art to its powerful exhibitions and dedication to community engagement, Firstsite truly is a magical place – and made for the perfect spot for our first Art Partners visit since the pandemic began.

Art Partners are a group of Art Fund patrons who join us for unique opportunities to get closer to the art they support. They play a vital role in our work with museums and galleries across the UK. We visited Firstsite together in May 2022.

If you'd like to find out about joining us for opportunities such as this, learn more about Art Partners here or contact Scarlett Millar

All photos © Hydar Dewachi / Art Fund 2022

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