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Newcastle Arts Centre 2021 – Celebrating 40 Creative Years
Newcastle Arts Centre is a not-for-profit enterprise comprised of a trading company Newcastle Arts Centre Limited and a registered charity Newcastle Arts Centre Trust Limited. Established in 1981 to build a venue for creative activity and bring back to life to a group of abandoned buildings, we progressed to win a Times – RIBA Community Enterprise Award in 1988 and the Centre was officially opened by HRH The Prince of Wales, the now King Charles.
Our restoration of 9 Historic buildings was further recognised with an Award from the Georgian Group for the structural restoration of the City’s first Assembly House in 2010.
In 2014 we completed the refurbishment of the Jazz Café on Pink Lane and reopened with a programme that attracted international musicians and became a venue for Arts Council supported tours. Recently we brought the live Jazz Programme back into the Arts Centre and further developed our programme of Exhibitions and practical Art Courses. The Centre made very good progress in the year up to lockdown, visitors exceeded 82,000 and February’s turnover was 27% up on the same month of the previous year. We entered Lockdown in a strong financial position, owning the Freehold on a very small mortgage.
A new start and back to our roots
When Spectro Arts Workshop opened just off Pilgrim Street in 1977 it was promoted as an ‘Arts Resource Centre for the community’ a slogan developed in the founding project which opened in Whitley Bay in 1970. Newcastle Arts Centre was founded in 1981 to continue that development with some independence from the support of revenue grant aid and has not applied for revenue funding since 1993.
The original business plan saw the Centre a as mixed-use development that restored the historic and social fabric of an abandoned group of 8 buildings in the City Centre. Commercial and Residential lettings were created to fund a mortgage on the site and the Company also developed its own Arts related trading departments. During the 1990’s the Centre provided a home for the largest concentration of professional arts activity in the region. This included many of Northern Arts ‘key strategic organisations’, Projects UK (a renamed Spectro Arts Workshop), the offices of Northern Stage, New Writing North and Folkworks. Meanwhile the Centre was making and promoting creative craft and developing exhibition and performance programmes. Including The Northern Professional Craft Fair and a 7-day Edinburgh Fringe Festival Stopover which was a preview of performers on their way to Edinburgh.
The Centre suffered a crisis in 1993 as Northern Arts’ strategy was directed away from local development to make use of the new National Lottery funds to build the new visual arts and music centres of national significance that became the Baltic and Sage venues.
This ambition to centrally direct this regions arts development saw funding pulled from the Side Gallery, Charlotte Press and Projects UK. Positive spin offs from our Centre were the Zone Gallery, Northern Print and Locus Plus.
Simultaneously we were unable raise funds from either the City or Northern Arts, and for the next six years we concentrated on trading to survive and improve our financial position, and the year 2000 saw the Centre refurbished to reopen fully developed with active studios, gallery and performance space.
We were exhibition producer and participant in three important Northern RIBA projects presenting ideas of the past and future built environment in Newcastle and Tyneside.
In 2013, we began a very popular series of art courses for adults and had planned a young people’s art programme for summer 2021. In addition, the facilities at the Centre were regularly used by more than 80 groups and organisations, all this activity resulted in a very positive growth of visitor numbers. Meanwhile we have supported live music by funding performances and providing a free venue for Jazz North East, plus touring performances organised by others. We also contributed to the funding of the Newcastle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music, gave a loan to Breeze Creatives and free exhibition space to dozens of visual artists.
By 2020 we were looking forward to a strong and active future with a growing audience and a very positive financial position. February 2020 saw a 27% increase in turnover against the same month a year earlier.
The shutdown in March was a huge setback for the City of Newcastle and a complete close down of the Arts Centre. Although by June this year, we were trading again, arts activity was limited to providing studios and running a very restricted programme of art courses.
Now in October 2021 footfall in the City Centre is still below normal while many offices remain closed and public transport is regarded by many as a health risk. We now have an active programme and seek funding support to progress next year. Our target will be to broaden participation and encourage young people to get involved with Creative activities. We recognise that a public programme requires funding, because under current conditions our established self-funded model can only maintain the building and a trading administration.
The challenge is to reach out, encourage Creative practice and nurture community involvement though online activity while preparing the Centre for a busy live programme of real events and social interaction in our studios and venues. The lockdown allowed us to continue planning the improvement of our site within our existing ambition to make our operation environmentally sustainable.
Venue – Newcastle Arts Centre has 5 venues 2 conference rooms, 2 teaching studios and 9 studios. In Newcastle few small venues fully meet the requirements of disabled people so that they may enjoy easy access to events and meetings. The need to create a Covid Safe easy access Venue is well recognised by the Arts Centre.
We have looked hard at the viability of using our existing performance venues to meet the requirements of social distancing on entrances to venues, bar, café and toilets. The cost of improving all of our existing live performance spaces is prohibitive because of the limits of working with historic buildings, and therefore we have decided to push on with our plans to convert our ground floor gallery into an all-purpose venue. This is a project that has been planned for several years and a new doorway to Pink Lane has been completed. There remains the need to fund capital works and equipment to upgrade this space, A new disabled access WC, Fire Doors, Improvements to Fire Alarms, Emergency Lighting and the necessary acoustic adjustments, sound, video equipment and lighting.
The new venue will have wide wheelchair access to both Westgate Road and Pink Lane and to all supporting facilities of Café, Bar and toilets. It will have high speed broadband, good wi-fi, induction loop and power ventilation.
A normal capacity would be 90 but under Covid rules that will reduce to 35. The doors onto Pink Lane are only 60 metres from the main entrance to the Central Station which contains lift access to the Metro. A covid secure 35 seat venue would meet the needs of most groups and organisations that have used and wish to use the Centre, and therefore this plan creates an essential facility for the existing community of users and opens up creative activity to all. Before the lockdown we committed to encourage young people to participate in art and music, and now we plan to continue placements for Newcastle University Music students on a project to further develop an active music programme for both participants and audience of a broad age range.
Funds: We have a reserve set aside for maintenance and emergencies but need to raise additional funds to improve and update the Centre. The main capital spend will be on – Essential refurbishment and improved access to our public spaces Main Lift refurbishment and improvement, Fire Alarm Upgrade, New and upgraded easy accessible WC’s , Heat and Ventilation Control Systems. Low Energy Light and Sound Systems, Improved building Insulation. Electric Solar Panels with battery storage.
This Programme development is ongoing together with the creation of a strong and active Trust membership drawn from the local community which includes well established artists and musicians as well as people with considerable management experience.
Recently we have completed a programme of converting lighting to LED and are now planning more energy efficiency measures. Including Solar panels, improved Heat and Ventilation control systems and insulation, all designed to reduce our carbon footprint and control energy costs. All of this is difficult with listed buildings, but we are confident that we can continue to make improvements as repairs and renewals become necessary. From the start our aim was to build a sustainable Arts Centre providing a platform and workplace for artists and performers that would be recognised not as a precious white box but integrated at street level by trade and open access for our local community.
Online and Digital
This year our main online site www.newcastle-arts-centre.co.uk has been further developed to promote Creative Vision and Creative Sounds with a more active promotion of original work by live online streaming and our own production of YouTube content, including interviews with creative people, performances and demonstrations of technique. As a result our online presence is growing at 20% per month and more individuals and groups wish to collaborate with us.
The Centre has also been used for professional video and film production. Ken Loach used our studios to accommodate, production, casting, design and wardrobe for the making of ‘Sorry we missed you’ during the summer of 2018.
We have an excellent high speed broadband connection and look forward to making good use of it for videos to promote activities at the centre with both recorded productions and live streaming of our music programme and courses. There is an understanding that online video can greatly extend the reach of events at the Centre, without damaging the experience of the real event for audience or participants. We are also inviting artists, performers and filmmakers to offer shorts and trailers through the channel of our website.
Environment and Sustainability
Back in 1981 the group of buildings that now form Newcastle Arts Centre was an abandoned wreck. Originally acquired for a new hotel development in the late 1960’s it was stalled by the property crash of 1974 and the move of the City Centre north as a focus of redevelopment.
While 56 listed buildings were demolished to make way for Eldon Square Shopping Centre the area around Central Station declined. The then new Tyne and Wear Conservation Team realised that Westgate Road contained a number of 18th Century Merchants Houses and listed the buildings we now own. Our task was to create a working Arts Centre while restoring this heritage. We established the identity and role of each of the buildings bringing them back to life, and the goodwill of local people familiar with the buildings.
Despite neglect and rot we recycled the buildings and discovered much about the importance of buildings as central to the government and development of Tyneside during the 17th and 18th Centuries. This includes a previously unknown Roman Milecastle under our Courtyard and the City’s first Assembly House which is the oldest surviving Arts building on Tyneside, both now marked with ‘blue plaques’. We salvaged thousands of old bricks from demolition sites and timber from a grain silo that stood beside the Baltic, and fittings from other sites. We also manufactured traditional doors, windows, ceramic floor tiles, mosaic and timber details to build a high-quality finish that respected the vernacular while meeting contemporary needs. All achieved by our careful management of a Government Job Creation and training project.
Assembly House at 55 Westgate Road
In 2009 we invested heavily with the support of English Heritage in the structural restoration of the Assembly House the oldest arts building in Newcastle, (not to be confused with the Assembly Rooms on the other side of the street).
Our project was work on a second location which we acquired in 1986 as our commercial headquarters. Research proved that 55 Westgate Road had been a Mansion House in the 17th Century and later became the City’s Assembly House where the composer Charles Avison gave his first Public Subscription Concert in 1736. The Assembly House is an important annexe to the Arts Centre and will be a future development.
With our studios fully tenanted we are having to respond to demand for studio and high street exhibition space by enabling it to function as an additional creative venue for individual and educational projects. This includes accommodating community groups and institutions including Northumbria University Department of Interior Architecture, Newcastle University School of Fine Art, Newcastle College BA Fine Art, Visual Arts in Rural Communities.
The wide range of tenants and user groups at the Arts Centre testify to the success of our creative and social strategy and the arts Trust established to take this work forward.
The Assembly House – a Newcastle Arts Centre project
Office – 0191 2615618 email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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