Firstsite anniversary: The fall and rise of gallery and its designs on the future

A LOT can change in the space of a decade.

Colchester’s Firstsite gallery is celebrating its tenth anniversary with a myriad of exhibitions pencilled in over the coming months.

However, taking bookings has not always been as effortless as it is now.

In its early years the gallery was unpopular.

Costing £28million and opening two years late after a series of setbacks, the contemporary art gallery was damned by its critics.

It was labelled elitist and failed to get the footfall it wanted.

In 2015, Colchester Arts Centre director Anthony Roberts was parachuted in as interim director.

He had a far more popularist approach where the community was at the heart of the gallery and, frankly, anything went.

The tide began to turn.

When he returned to his beloved arts centre later that year, he was succeeded by Sally Shaw.

Prior to taking the reins of the gallery, Mrs Shaw worked as Boris Johnson’s visual artist and was involved in public art in London Underground stations.

Her most recent role before moving to Colchester was as head of programme for Modern Art Oxford.

With an established background in modern art, Mrs Shaw believed her experience and skill set could make Firstsite the gallery it could be.

“I was on maternity leave when I heard about Firstsite being in trouble,” she said.

“I am a bit bonkers, so I felt I was able to take it on as I really wanted to make the place work.”

She had a vision for the curved venue’s 180-seat tiered cinema, restaurant, exhibition and education spaces.

Mrs Shaw added: “Galleries are a long and slow project and people often forget that.

“It’s all exciting when they first open but the real test is years three, four and five – as those are the years it gets difficult.

“That’s what was experienced here at Firstsite.

“Great shows were held at first but they were not what the people always wanted to see.”

To attract more visitors, Mrs Shaw and her team needed to discover what type of content Colchester residents wanted.

She said: “I wanted to know people’s interests and it’s quite an iterative process learning what people want to see.

“It’s like a recipe – we have all of the ingredients and it’s an experimental process to create the right outcome.”

In the past five years, Mrs Shaw has tried her hardest to listen to the public, and has made several changes to the gallery to accommodate visitors from all walks of life.

One of her proudest achievements was launching Holiday Fun in 2017, which is a free half-term programme of activities for low-income families in north


Mrs Shaw closed the building’s struggling restaurant and turned it into a canteen during school holidays for youngsters using the scheme.

Since its inception, the gallery has provided almost 8,000 free meals to families.

Mrs Shaw said 47 per cent of those meals were provided last year alone, many through a takeaway scheme.

She estimates more than 1,000 families have benefited from the initiative to date.

“The whole idea was raised to me by Rachel Walton, the director of African Families in the UK,” Mrs Shaw said.

“When I told her we would use our canteen in the school holidays to help families in need, her jaw dropped.

“Since then, we have run the programme every school holiday and adapted it during Covid times.”

The gallery itself has needed to adapt massively over the past year due to the coronavirus pandemic, with staff learning how to run virtual exhibitions and workshops.

During the height of the pandemic, the gallery ran the Great Big Art Exhibition.

It has been a creative sensation with more than 5,000 contributions sent in during lockdown which can be seen on a digital wall in the gallery.

While the gallery was closed to the public, the team decided to have a “bit of a reshuffle”.

The café was moved back to the back of the gallery, which means visitors now have the option to eat indoors or outdoors.

The building’s curved walls have also been injected with a splash of colour.

Mrs Shaw said: “The building is an extraordinary piece of architecture.

“When I started the walls were white, there was white everywhere.

“We have found colour adds more texture and dimension to the building.”

The impressive building was able to reopen to visitors as lockdown eased last week.

Mrs Shaw said: “Reopening was quite nerve-racking and we had our first ever queue outside the building and a steady flow of visitors.

“People have been craving a change of scenery and want to look at something new.”

Now the gallery has reopened, Mrs Shaw and her energetic team are running a host of exhibitions.

Artist Michael Landy is heading a packed programme with his Welcome to Essex exhibition.

Mrs Shaw said: “Mr Landy’s show is all about Essex and what the county stands for.

“He explores what Essex is known for and how it is changing. It’s fascinating.”

New on display is Art for Life, a poignant show of artworks made during the pandemic by contemporary artists working with NHS workers.

In September, the gallery will be presenting the Bloomberg New Contemporaries exhibition, which will be an opportunity to see the work of emerging artists.

Mrs Shaw has high hopes for the gallery’s future.

She said a person who keeps her feeling motivated is the gallery’s president Sonia Coode-


“She has never given up on the gallery as she has always understood its potential for Colchester and the benefit it would have on the town,” she said.

To find out more about Firstsite or its upcoming events and exhibitions, visit