Critical Reflections: Museums and Galleries Module Presentation May 2016


Case Study: Andy Warhol at Firstsite Colchester


Colchester Firstsite is a Tate Plus partnership gallery which opened in 2011 in the historic North East Essex Town of Colchester, whose mission is to “make art relevant for everyone”[1]. Through an examination of the development and inauguration of the controversial gallery building, and an analysis of the Andy Warhol exhibition and its accompanying programme, I will discuss the debates that surround this still young development, including arts-led gentrification, social-inclusion, governmentality and the politics of space and visibility.

Key Facts and Dates

  • Colchester is Britain’s oldest recorded town and has a population of 104, 390, located about an hour outside of London by direct main-line train.
  • Long-established heritage attractions in Colchester include Colchester Castle, Hollytrees museum and Colchester Natural History Museum.
  • 2003 à Colchester Borough Council receives Capital Gains Grant and sets up an architecture competition with the Royal Institute of British architects for a new build to rehome and expand local arts organisation Firstsite into a National Portfolio Organisation order to make Colchester a cultural destination and to create jobs and economic growth.
  • 2006 à Final plans for the £13million new development are given the go-ahead with Rafael Vinoly as the lead architect, due to be finished a year later
  • 2007 à Complications in construction due to complex architecture leads to severe complications and strained finances
  • 2008 à Global recession hits causing growth in unemployment as Colchester submits bid for City of Culture 2013 status as part of a grouped campaign with Ipswich and Harwich Gateway à loses to Derry
  • Public uproar as town bus station is removed and relocated to the outskirts of the town centre to make way for the new development
  • 2010 à Local council puts another £3.5million of public money intended to be used for frontline services into the unfinished project
  • 2011 à Gallery opens to the public more than £10million over budget à receives poor reviews with disdain amongst locals
  • March 2012 à bid for City status as part of the Diamond Jubilee à loses out to neighbouring town of Chelmsford
  • June 2012 à second bid for City of Culture 2017 status, this time independently à loses to Hull[2]
  • 2015 à Poor visitor figures and exhibition reviews lead to the gallery losing its Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation status and receives emergency funding for one year à funding is still only secured until 2017

Features of the Exhibition:

  • Site specific work by Camille Walala and Colchester-born artist Hattie Stewart
  • The Factory Education space
  • The Factory: Digital Residency featuring works by local artists
  • Andy Warhol ARTIST ROOMS

Interviews with:

  • Marie-France Kittler, Curator at Firstsite since August 2015
  • Laura Davidson, Learning and Education Manager
  • Sian Fann and Benjamin Beauchamp, participating artists in The Factory: Digital Residency

Key Points:

  • “Culture is…a powerful means of controlling cities. As a source of images and memories, it symbolises “who belongs” in specific places. As a set of architectural themes, it plays a leading role in urban redevelopment strategies based on historic preservation or local “heritage”. With the disappearance of local manufacturing industries and periodic crises in government and finance, culture is more and more the business of cities – the basis of their tourist attractions and their unique, competitive edge. The growth of cultural consumption (of art, food, fashion, music, tourism) and the industries that cater to it fuels the city’s economy, its visible ability to produce both symbols and space”[3] Sharon Zukin, The Cultures of Cities.


  • “The process of gentrification is of interest because it not only points to the redevelopment of the cultural fabric of inner-city areas, it also provides a higher profile for groups within the new middle class who are in many guises the producers, carriers, consumers of lifestyles which entail the culturally sensitive “stylization of life” and have developed dispositions which make them receptive to postmodern cultural goods and experiences. They therefore have direct and indirect interests in the accumulation of cultural capital both on a personal basis, and in terms of that of their neighbourhood and wider city”[4], Mike Featherstone, City Cultures and Post-Modern Lifestyles.


  • It’s really important for Firstsite to engage with and be relevant to its local community. The organisation is there to present world-class contemporary art, but first and foremost it is sited in Colchester and we aim to reflect that as much as possible in our programming. We have an opportunity to highlight local art, history and industry, and we can use this to everyone’s advantage to create an experience that is unique to the area, and which visitors from further afield will also seek out”, Marie-France Kittler


  • Elizabeth Crooke à in the 1990s UK Government policy began to focus on community development to create more cohesive, sustainable communities which embrace diversity, and placed museums at the centre of this in order to instil a sense of local and national pride[5]. Eileen Hooper-Greenhill also described this transition – in which accessibility and education where the key features – as museums demonstrating their “use” to society[6].

[1] “Firstsite – Home.” Firstsite. Web. 23 May 2016. <;.

[2] Colchester: Town Launches City of Culture Bid. East Anglian Daily Times, 26 June 2012. Web. 23 May 2016. <

[3] [3] Zukin, Sharon. The Cultures of Cities. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995. 1-2. Print.

[4] Featherstone, Mike, and Dawsonera. Consumer Culture and Postmodernism. 2nd;2; ed. Los Angeles, Calif;London;: Sage, 2007. 11. Web

[5] Hooper-Greenhill, Eileen. Museums and Their Visitors. London: Routledge, 1994. 14. Print.

[6] Crooke, Elizabeth. “Community Development and the UK Museum Sector”. Museums and Community Ideas Issues Challenges. Oxon: Routledge, 2007. 41-47. Print.


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