Successful engagement with the public is the key to successful capital redevelopment, argues Katherine Wood.
Firstsite was established in 1993 with the ultimate goal of building a new leisure space, with contemporary art at its heart, in Colchester, Essex. Its now 12 years since I accepted the challenge of directing the organisation and I am delighted to say that, as I sit here at my desk, I can hear the reassuring sound of construction, as work continues on our new home.
On many occasions over the past decade, it has felt as if we might never reach this stage, but the gestation of the project has given us the necessary time for feasibility and concept development. Since 1994, we have grown in our current venue of The Minories a Georgian townhouse built around the Tudor remnants of a far earlier building.
Using the building as our headquarters has enabled us to develop programmes and audiences, and give greater visibility to the large and active community of artists who live and work in this area. Our current development into the new building is scheduled in four phases: transition, launch, consolidation and development. We will dim the lights on The Minories art gallery and raise them on the new building over a period of 18 months during 2007/08. Our key priorities for this period will be developing new content and programmes, sustaining and involving audiences and growing our team.
Building a new cultural space in the UK at this moment has specific challenges. The building has been developed as a new type of social space and visitor attraction, with contemporary visual art at its heart. We have focused on different levels of visitor experience, conceiving the whole building visit as one journey, and examined the changing patterns in and demands upon peoples leisure time.
Nowadays, we can travel anywhere in the virtual world, and we live in a knowledge society where communication is fast and furious. The social impact of recent initiatives such as my space are phenomenal. The advantage for firstsite is that it is an informed model, responding, first, to the huge success of the past 12 years 700% audience increase and, second, the project is coming to fruition with the luxury of the experience of other similar projects throughout the UK and the wider cultural world.
The need to communicate equally the developments cultural, social and economic impact and outputs is now a given. Indeed, in the context of our virtual world there is a growing demand for shared physical and community spaces. From the Culture at the Heart of Regeneration initiative to the emerging government agendas on the value of participatory activity, play and even the desire to understand what makes us happy our contemporary cultural projects need to be fluent in, translate and articulate these concepts.
Since 2003, the process for the development of this project has been transparent, with a focus upon public information, debate and involvement. It is a continual challenge to balance the needs of involving audience and accounting for and communicating the wider benefits and sustainability of the project. We have devised a three-year engagement programme, which includes public workshops and an active artists programme.
Our team is set to grow by 30% by the time we inhabit our new premises. Change has been a constant since the inception of firstsite. We have adopted the kaizen, or gradual, approach to change management developing the visibility of our organisational culture, the ability to be responsive, and the challenge of thinking ourselves into a new place and way of working. We look forward to meeting our future.
Katherine Wood is Director of firstsite.
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