King’s Lynn Arts Centre Closing Event

It was sadly announced just before Christmas that the King’s Lynn Arts Centre Trust was to close its doors at the end of December 2015 and the staff would be made redundant.

Despite being devastated by the news, the small team of 7, including 1 Creative Apprentice and 3 European Volunteering Service (EVS) volunteers who have had their year-long placement in King’s Lynn cut short by some 6 months, have been determined to ensure that even if there was to be no more King’s Lynn Arts Centre, they would diligently ensure that the archives documenting this vital resource would be conserved. The King’s Lynn Arts Centre has been a venue proud of its open and inclusive spirit of engagement. So, as the incredibly rich history of the King’s Lynn Arts Centre was carefully unpacked, unpicked and identified, it seemed fitting that a lasting testament to a unique community resource being sadly lost, should be showcased, documented, and of course, open to the public with free admission as it has always been, in one final exhibition – 65 years of history in 1 day. The team has worked professionally and tirelessly against the strain of looming closure to accurately order and display the archive exhibition as evidence of the incredible volume of work that has taken place both on and in the community.

Looking back, none of this would have been possible without the benefaction of local landowner, Alexander Penrose, who stepped in to save the Guildhall of St George from being demolished in 1945. He was able to rally heroic support from Lord and Lady Fermoy (Lady-in-Waiting to the late Queen Mother) both of whom campaigned relentlessly to raise funds for the building and instigated the first King’s Lynn Festival in a newly restored Guildhall in 1951. It is sadly ironic that the venue had to be saved again by a band of local arts enthusiasts some 60 years later in 2011 when threatened with closure by the Borough Council of King’s Lynn & West Norfolk. It is arguably the longest surviving Arts Centre in the country!

The final exhibition event took place at the King’s Lynn Arts Centre on Saturday 30 January from 11 – 6pm. Over 250 people attended this celebration event. An exhibition across the Fermoy Gallery and Shakespeare Barn wonderfully displayed an archive of past exhibition and event posters to chart and document the vast and extraordinarily diverse collection of work that has been displayed over 65 years. In the Old Warehouse, a powerful and dramatic series of photographs by EVS volunteer Alessio Graldi were shown in an original piece of work inspired by Transform – a group of women survivors of domestic abuse, who were brought together during a King’s Lynn Arts Centre outreach project. The Red Barn featured the premiere of a documentary film, directed by Alessio Graldi, which brought together old and new footage and animation to illustrate particularly some of the major interactive historical education work that has been a hallmark of the off-site reach of the King’s Lynn Arts Centre into the community. Visitors joined together in re-living memories, sharing stories with passers-by, participants and importantly, the supporters who donated towards the cause.

There have been many incredible moments and it is really so difficult to choose the highlights, but our project work, externally funded, often by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and sometimes off-site, gave us all some incredibly special and memorable experiences. This was our speciality - most notably, the Evacuation Special, the Maritime Trail, the Tudor Trail, the Vancouver Festival, the Hanse Festival, the Medieval Market in the Walks, all unique interactive historical dramas devised and delivered by the venue team and attended and enjoyed by hundreds of children and families. The Maritime Festivals brought spectacular tall ships, the Earl of Pembroke and the Lisa von Lubeck, to the South Quay. More recently, the Arts Centre Director and Development Manager wrote the successful funding bid on behalf of the Borough Council that secured the €600,000 for the Amiens Project which has now led to the ‘entente cordiale’ with France and some incredible artists’ projections onto our fine historic buildings. The role of the Arts Centre in securing this European funding may not be well-publicised, but it was a crucial one. This led to further successful EU bids in our own right and to our EVS accreditation by the British Council to host and train young European Volunteers and to send young people from Norfolk for similar life-changing experiences to partner organisations in Europe.

In terms of exhibitions we should cite 6 in partnership with the extraordinary collector, Dr Graham Cooley, King’s Lynn Glass, Caithness Glass, Hi Sklo Lo Sklo, Alla Moda , Fat Lava and Forma Hungarica which attracted world-wide interest, with Chinese artist Liu Jianhua (showing both here and at Oxburgh) , Julian Opie (well-known for Blur: The Best Of album cover), the Arts Council funded ‘Aspire’ mentoring project that reached out to communities like Hillington Square and of course the Eastern Open – all 46 years in total of this popular ‘open’ exhibition, kick-starting many a career and attracting prominent national selectors year after year!

Before being TUPE transferred to the post of KLACT Director 4 years ago, Liz Falconbridge served 21 continuous years in the venue under both St George’s Guildhall Trust and the King’s Lynn Arts Centre under the Council management. Liz comments “As a teenager at school in Fakenham, the King’s Lynn Arts Centre was my nearest arts venue and it is where I saw my first serious art exhibitions and concerts, in particular, ‘Picasso & the Surrealists’ from the Roland Penrose Collection (brother of Alexander) in 1968, making a tremendous impression on me and inspiring a career in galleries. I later brought my own children here for art and theatre.”

The valuable and intensive work that was being done by the venue towards social engagement and wellbeing ensured that it made a priceless contribution to the economy and the cultural tourism offer, and provided some subsidy to maintain the King’s Lynn Arts Centre as a ‘free admission’ venue. To see this as merely the closure of an art gallery is to miss the point absolutely and entirely. The venue has strived to give opportunities to those who have had none, to give second chances to those who barely got a first, to listen to those who have had no voice, and to raise the aspirations of those who have found themselves resigned to their lot. KLACT truly became ‘A Place to Come and Find Yourself’. The list of those who were using the venue for more than just a gallery or theatre visit is extensive: Youth Offenders, Young Carers, Young Care Leavers, Stroke Survivors, School Refusers, Mencap, Women Suffering from Domestic Abuse, Long term Unemployed, NEET category young people. This is not to mention the invaluable education strand for children and young people offered by the Arts Award across 5 levels taken up by local primary and secondary schools, Home Educators and individual children who have all been welcomed and supported to achieve qualifications.

The King’s Lynn Arts Centre constantly punched well above its weight and provided a wealth of added value to the Borough, employing and training young people and artists, and enhancing the local cultural offer in an accessible way that touched many lives, often to inspire and raise the self-esteem of those facing challenges young and old. There is no doubt that the investment for the funders has been returned manifold with work that has been of the highest standard and the work of the venue has attracted attention in their names beyond the borough, nationally and internationally.

KLACT will be greatly missed. On Saturday 30 January 2016, the King’s Lynn Arts Centre Trust took one last opportunity to welcome artists, friends, supporters and visitors to the galleries to join them in celebrating their rich history of 65 years in 1 day!