Aberystwyth Arts Centre
Aberystwyth Arts Centre is one of Wales' busiest and largest arts centres, based on Aberystwyth University's Penglais campus Aberystwyth, Ceredigion, Wales. It hosts a theatre (312 seats), concert hall (900 seats), studio (80 seats) and cinema (125 seats), as well as four gallery spaces and cafés, bars, and shops.
Aberystwyth Arts Centre had its beginnings in the 1970s when the then University College of Wales, Aberystwyth built the facility with the ambition to serve not just the College, but also the town and the surrounding counties.
The first phase was the Concert Hall (the Great Hall), which opened in 1970. Designed by architect Dale Owen of Percy Thomas Partnership the building was awarded the RIBA Gold Medal for Architecture in Wales. In Autumn 1972 the second phase of the Centre was completed and the Theatre (‘Theatr y Werin’, literally ‘theatre of the people’) came into use. This marked the final phase of the project – and Aberystwyth Arts Centre was born.
From the very beginning the Arts Centre pursued a diverse mixed programming policy, encouraging and supporting local groups and University ensembles and inviting leading professional companies to Aberystwyth. The professional work was made possible through the on-going support of the University as well as support from the Welsh Arts Council and the West Wales Association for the Arts.
The first manager of the Arts Centre, Roger Tomlinson, ran the venue from the planning phases, through the first years until 1975 when he left to take on a similar role for Theatr Clwyd in North Wales. In the early years under Roger Tomlinson’s direction there was some adventurous theatre programming including productions with now very well known names from film and television including Peter Postlethwaite and Julie Walters, and major companies such as Welfare State.
Ken Williams, an ex RAF Wing Commander, who had been Roger Tomlinson’s Administrator, took over as Manager in 1975 with a specialism and love of classical music. As well as nurturing the concert programme, under his direction the first of the musical productions were established. These are now a hugely popular feature of the Centre’s summer programme as well as encouraging young professional talent. Michael Ball one of the UK’s top musical stars had his professional debut in the Centre’s production of Godspell in 1985.
The Visual Arts and Exhibitions Programme was substantially expanded in 1978 with the appointment of Alan Hewson as Exhibitions Officer funded by the Wales Arts Council. As well as expanding the Visual Arts Programme he also established the very successful Arts Centre Café in 1980, the Bookshop in 1981, the Arts Centre film programme in 1983 and in 1984 the Visual Arts Education Programme, the first of community arts and education programmes that were to become one of the keys to the Centre’s success. Alan Hewson was appointed Director 1985.
1985 saw a major change of policy by the Welsh Arts Council. There was a total withdrawal of revenue funding from many of the theatres and arts centres across Wales to focus on producing theatre companies. The University still maintained its valuable core support but the artistic programme and the development of the Centre had to be funded on a different model. Three key strategies were developed in response to this challenging situation. Firstly the Arts Centre needed to be innovative in its approach to artistic programme particularly through partnerships; secondly to develop its links to the community through a growing community arts programme that should aim to be as self-financing as possible; and thirdly to substantially expand the Arts Centre’s earned income through the development of its commercial operations.
The use of festivals was seen as a strategic way to develop the artistic programme and attract interested and committed audiences not only locally but national and internationally. Musicfest International Music Festival and Summer School was established by the Arts Centre in 1986, building on links with the University Music Department. It has since grown into a major event in the UK classical music calendar with over thirty concerts and events and over 100 of the most talented young musicians attending the Summer School from the UK and abroad.
The International Ceramics Festival was established in 1987 when the Arts Centre joined forces with North and South Wales Potters Associations to run what is now one the world’s foremost ceramic festivals. The festival attracts over 1,000 potters and ceramicists from around the globe for an amazing weekend in Aberystwyth. The initial impetus for this festival was based in the University’s outstanding collection of twentieth century studio ceramics and the Arts Centre’s work linked to that through associated exhibitions and a growing range of ceramics courses.
Over the next twenty years the Arts Centre established and helped to establish twelve more festivals over a wide range of art forms including children’s literature, poetry, theatre for young people, international theatre, student media, digital storytelling, world music, world cinema, classic cinema, horror films, and is currently developing a photographic biennial and a festival of architecture. Many of these festivals were developed in partnership with a wide range of organisations and individuals and have become key elements in our artistic programme as well as helping to support the work of the University departments.
From small beginnings in 1984 the Community Arts and Education Programme has grown to eventually cover virtually all the art forms. Apart from specific projects and the developing access work the programme earns a significant part of its own funding to allow it to grow and develop.
Commercial development was the third strand to the Centre’s strategy for growth and sustainability. The potential to fully develop this strand was inhibited by the lack of capital investment and it was only with a successful European funding application in 1993 and the Lottery funded redevelopment completed in 2000 that the earning potential from commercial operations was fully realised, which has contributed so much to the success of the Arts Centre.
Since the Arts Centre first opened its doors its facilities have continually been developing and evolving. Over the 80s and 90s workshops, studios, cafes, shops and bars opened in an organic nature and with the minimum of resources to meet demand and to help fund the artistic programme.
The advent of Lottery Funding through the Arts Council of Wales opened doors for a major redevelopment project which was four years in the planning, two years in the making and opened to the public in April 2000. The £4.3 million award winning redevelopment project was designed by architect Peter Roberts, and added a stunning new gallery space, purpose built workshop spaces, a cinema, dance studios, a studio theatre and enhanced the theatre foyer space, whilst working in harmony with the original structure of the building. The project received £2.6 million from the ACW Lottery Scheme.
Further development continued into the new millennium. In the Spring of 2009 a new £1.25 million redevelopment was completed to add an artists and creative industries studios complex, designed by Thomas Heatherwick, one of the UK’s top designers which gained the Arts Centre its third Royal Institute Of British Architects Award and the only Civic Trust Award to be granted in Wales in 2010.
The Creative Units provide a home for the Arts Centre's major Artists in Residence Programme for UK and international visual artists funded by trusts and foundations and cultural organisations in Finland, Canada, Australia and Pakistan. The units were fully occupied from the moment they opened, with a range of resident artists, crafts workers, film makers, new media and creative businesses working alongside each other and creating a cultural hub. Additional units funded by the Arts Council of Wales and National Assembly were completed in August 2011 in response to the demand by artists and creative companies wanting to be part of the thriving artistic community.
The Arts Centre’s turnover is in almost £4.5m, of which it earns 78% from a combination of its ticket sales, its commercial trading operations including cafes, bars, shops and conferences, far higher that the 45% average for most comparable arts facilities in the UK. It receives core revenue funding from the University, Arts Council of Wales and Ceredigion County Council. From a position of no funding by the Arts Council of Wales in 1986 the Arts Centre is now one of its major revenue clients receiving over £500,000 a year and has over the last ten years received almost £3 million for capital projects, a clear recognition of how far the Arts Centre has developed.
The Arts Centre is open seven days a week throughout the year, offering a full programme of theatre, dance, music, exhibitions, film, literature, and comedy and a wide range of performing and visual arts classes and courses. The programme over the summer months includes festivals and the large-scale summer season theatre production, to appeal to the core Mid Wales audience as well as the large visitor and tourist market.
It seats 312 people and its programme is a mixture of professional and community productions, plus increasingly in-house professional productions which are also taken out on tour. At Christmas the Arts Centre presents its own family show, after which the Warden’s take to the stage for their traditional pantomime, which is guaranteed to cheer up even the gloomiest January. The Summer Season production runs for five weeks (44 performances) over July and August. The programme includes a wide range of theatre, dance, opera, comedy, musicals and family events.
Seats 60–80 and offers a smaller, more intimate space for new and experimental work, literature readings and for the Open Platform scheme which aims to encourage and support new and emerging artists and performers.
it seats up to 1250 people, and is used for a wide range of music concerts, theatre productions, light entertainment, as well as University events including Graduation Ceremonies. The flexible space means it can also be used for trade shows, conferences, weddings and other special events, which generate significant income for the Arts Centre.
The 125-seat cinema is one of only two in the town and dedicates itself to showing a variety of films including Hollywood, foreign and independent films, and classic films, ranging from Casablanca to Raiders of the Lost Ark. It is very popular[clarification needed] with constantly updated technology including Digital HD, Dolby Stereo and 3D. Live links from around the world have been so successful with seasons from the New York Met, Bolshoi Ballet and National Theatre that digital projection has also been installed in the theatre. The cinema shows at least two films every day of the week, plus Silver Screenings, Parent and Baby screenings, Film Society, Cult Film Series, and numerous festivals – from the Abertoir horror festival to the WOW Wales One World Film Festival and more.
A purpose-built space is the main exhibition gallery which showcases the very best of contemporary art including painting, sculpture, installations and new media and digital work. Gallery 2 provides a focus for print and photography work, whilst the Café Gallery provides a more informal setting for smaller scale work. The Ceramics Gallery showcases the best in contemporary ceramics from around the world and is also home to the university’s outstanding Ceramic Collection. The Arts Centre is now recognised by the Arts Council as one of key members of the network of major galleries in Wales and is the principle regional contemporary art gallery for Mid and West Wales. A recent development has been the installation of ‘The Box’ which is a mini-viewing space to showcase artists’ films.
Workshop spaces for the Community Arts programme include four purpose built dance studios, ceramic studio, 3D studio, 2D studio, two rehearsal spaces, recording studio, photographic suite and a Digilab. The Arts Centre encourages participation in a whole range of art forms by students, staff and the local community through the use of its resources, facilities and provision of professional expertise. Participants are encouraged and supported to showcase their skills through public performances and exhibitions.
Cafés and bars
Cafés and bars are very popular[clarification needed] and run directly by the Arts Centre. The award-winning cafés offer a wide range of freshly prepared meals and snacks from early in the morning through to the evening.
Craft and Design Shop
The Arts Centre is also home to a Craft & Design Shop offering a wide range of contemporary crafts and jewellery focusing particularly on work from Wales and also the bookshop with latest book releases and academic publications, book launches and literary events. The Craft shop also stages a major Craft fair each year during November and December with over eighty stalls showcasing the work of makers from Wales.
The Arts Centre’s facilities are also used for conferences, television recording, craft and food fairs, sales seminars and meetings, with full service and catering provided in-house.
The arts centre currently receives over 750,000 visitors a year to the over 800 scheduled events, including 100,000 to the community arts and education programme, according to the latest published annual report.
With a turnover of approximately £5.5 million the Arts Centre is recognised as one of the most successful centres for the arts in Wales.
The success of the recent developments is seen in the increase in all the indicators comparing 2000 to 2010, with annual attendances at performances and events up from 56,000 to 100,000 annually; participation in community arts from 30,000 to 86,000 annually; attendance at exhibitions up from 40,000 to 200,000 annually; cinema attendance up from 5,000 to 46,000 annually and total annual turnover up from £1.4 million to £4.4 million, with earned income making up 78% in comparison to the UK average of 45%