This year the Bridgwater Arts Centre will be 70. Another first for Bridgwater-the countrys first Arts Centre. On October 10th 1946 the newly created Arts Council of Great Britain opened its first premises in the Georgian splendour of Castle street – another of Somersets secret jewels – built in 1723 by James Brydges, first Duke of Chandos, in a style then prevalent in London and which even predated the major 18th Georgian metropolis of Bath.
This October the Art Centre will be celebrating 70 years in our town with an exciting programme combining the past and the present and on Tuesday 3rd May will be holding its Annual General Meeting. (7pm, Arts Cente Castle street). In this of all years there’s never been a better time to get involved. If you’re a member, turn up to the AGM and see what they’re planning, or bring your own ideas to the table and if you’re not a member then become one and let’s ensure the Art Centre lasts another 70 years.
The Art Centre was set up in a building that before 1946 had been a school of Music in the inter war years and the key player was Gwen Pollard, who’s portrait hangs today in the Kelting Room. The only surviving founder member, John Allen (a teenager at the time) , says “The original idea was that National and International touring companies could take a break from their inter city tours by spending time at a charming rural location. In those days the Arts Council funded every penny of the project and the founding statement was ‘To bring together in one comprehensive organisation all the people interested in the arts in one place and to create a responsible body of people to represent the arts in Bridgwater’.”
The Innovative 70’s
The Art Centre has had a chequered history, largely based on where the next penny is coming from, and was initially nurtured by the Borough Council until in 1974 when Sedgemoor District Council was created and assumed responsibilities.
During the 50’s and 60’s a high quality programme of classical music-including both live and recorded events and theatre, notably the 60 year presence of the Blake Drama Club bring stage classics from Ayckbourn to Coward, was maintained at the Art Centre and in 1963 Castle street was even used as a film set for the Albert Finney movie ‘Tom Jones’.
Some of the most innovative times for the Art Centre came in the 1970’s when under the radical management of Bob Ormrod it led the way as a modern Jazz Venue and went on to become one of the regions premier punk venues as the Sheep Worrying Organisation moved in specialising in original and alternative music and theatre.
During this time the Art Centre opened up it’s own bar – crucial as a source of revenue.
Set up originally as a reading room with a few dusty bottles of brown ale kept in a cupboard and brought out at events, when the popular town centre pub the ‘old oak’ closed down, a diligent board member salvaged the original bar and installed it in the front room, where it remains to this day.
Outreach in the 90’s
By the 1990s the Art Centre expanded again under director Charlie Dearden who introduced a popular community outreach programme. During Charlie’s stint as centre director she brought in a range of talented arts practitioners including Su Squire who set up ‘Noise Limit youth theatre’ plus a series of community pantos and improv shows . Su said “What was great at this time was that you saw young people develop as fantastic human beings who could show how amazing they are. “
The Art Centre also has a Gallery and exhibition space and Pat Morley (now a Bridgwater Town Councillor) was the Chair of the Visual Arts Committee at the time and recalls –“One of the great things about the Art Centre is you constantly get to meet interesting people. I’ve never yet met an ordinary person as everyone has such interesting lives.”
Back to Basics in Century 21
During these years Sedgemoor District Council grant aided the place and had representatives on the Board until finally in 2010 managed to divest itself of the building, resulting in a major change of approach by the Board, which had to as a result massively reduce it’s paid staff and start again from scratch with a volunteer crew .
For a period the Board rebuilt slowly with their own members, plus the wealth of volunteers on hand, taking on the key management roles. In 2012 they were able to again employ staff and brought in Kate Goodale in a marketing and fundraising role. Today Kate is Artistic Director and has introduced an innovative system of young apprentices, launched the extremely popular ‘Big Bash’ street festival in 2015 and continues to programme professional touring acts alongside Bridgwater’s amateur community.
Backing from the Town Council
Since Sedgemoor District Council took a back seat, Bridgwater Town Council has stepped into the arena, specifically doubling its grant to the Arts Centre in its anniversary year.
Town Council Leader Brian Smedley says “ The Arts Centre is yet another unique and special selling point for Bridgwater . We’re proud to have it and we want to pay tribute to all the staff, members and volunteers who have kept it going through the years. This year we have increased our support in recognition of it’s importance in our community. Bridgwater Town Council sends an Observer to Art Centre Board meetings and for the past 12 months it’s been Eastover Councillor Moira Brown, who made a terrific impact on the centre, even taking on the temporary role of Chair, standing down just before the AGM, and specifically helped their fundraising by pushing through a successful £40,000 Viridor bid. I would urge everybody to get involved in the Arts Centre and if you can spare the time and have a bit of useful expertise, become a member and offer yourself even as a Board member in this special year.”
AGM -New Members Welcome
Today the Art Centre continues to put on established and original theatre, cabaret including comedy nights, top touring musicians of all genres, jazz and folk events in the bar, tribute acts and contemporary local bands,, they run a natural voice choir, watercolour classes, salsa sessions, zumba and creative writing, host art exhibitions and work with other venues in the town to encourage a vibrant creative community.
Current chair of the Board is Dr Caroline Wilkins who says “The AGM will be held at the Art Centre on Tuesday 3rd May at 7pm. Our Artistic Director will give a report on our plans for the year and moving forward. Our company secretary will show how well we’re doing at the moment and we’ll be looking for people to come forward to be on the Board as well.” You can find out more about the Arts Centre here.