“When I first got here in 2016, the gallery restaurant was losing something like £40,000 a year just by being here,” says Sally Shaw, the director of Firstsite in Colchester, Essex. The contemporary art gallery, set up in 2011, was on the rocks.
“It was in quite a tight spot,” says Shaw. “We’d been removed from the arts council’s National Portfolio. Most of the stakeholders were very, very concerned about what was happening. At the lowest, visitor numbers were down to around 80,000 a year – our highest being around 156,000. Team morale was quite low from a lot of change and uncertainty. So, it was a tough place to walk into as a new director.”
Firstsite never really had the locals on board. Not only had this alien gallery replaced a central bus station that had been a social hub for the town, but the venue was not something that anybody had really asked for. The gallery’s restaurant was a microcosm of the problem.
“I inherited this big empty restaurant,” Shaw says. “They’d tried so many things on site before that didn’t work that I was in the position of having a totally blank slate.”
Shaw quickly started a self-proclaimed “real mission” to speak to as many different people from the local area, including Firstsite’s most outspoken critics, to work out how to turn the place around. Among the people she met was Rachel Walton, the company director of a locally run charity called African Families in the UK.
“She told me two things, which have been a cornerstone for many of our projects,” Shaw says. “Rachel, who’s from Kenya originally but has lived in Colchester most of her life, said that people from her culture don’t recognise art in a gallery as ‘culture’. She sees culture as something that’s eaten, drunk, performed, spoken, done every day, and you don’t go to a special place for it.
It’s everywhere, every day. The other thing Rachel told me about was something called Holiday Hunger.”
Shaw, new to Colchester, wasn’t yet familiar with what life was like in the town. “Rachel explained that a lot of families in the area go hungry during school holidays because during term time they would receive free school meals.”
That was Shaw’s eureka moment. “I said to Sue Hogan, who’s our head of learning, why don’t we turn this into a school canteen? Let’s just do it.”
Three years on and Firstsite is still running canteen meals under the title Holiday Fun. “In the morning there’s sport and movement outside on the playing fields,” says Shaw. “Then the families who attend get a free hot lunch, cooked on site, and there are all-day art classes.”
Food, glorious food
Shaw says that the gallery has served more than 4,000 meals over 110 days over three years, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. There are 40,000 children and young people living in Colchester, of whom roughly 25% live in poverty.
“We’ve maybe connected with about 1,000 of them so far, but we couldn’t logistically take the whole 10,000,” Shaw says. “But what’s started to happen is that local community centres have begun copying what we’re doing.”
Not only has Shaw seen this initiative bring change to the local area, she’s also found that the families who attend become more engaged with Firstsite.
“One family came in 19 times over six weeks in the first summer that we ran it – that’s 95 meals that they couldn’t otherwise afford – and the mum from that family is now going to co-curate one of our exhibitions with the Arts Council Collection,” says Shaw. “Over three years, her whole relationship with us as an art gallery has completely changed. She didn’t make eye contact with anyone when she first visited.”
Apart from the vital sustenance that Firstsite is providing, Shaw is positive that what’s been instrumental in the success of Holiday Fun is that people don’t have to tell their neighbours they’re going to the foodbank, but instead going to an art gallery for a fun day out.
As with the mother becoming co-curator, Shaw says the local engagement with the gallery is fast-changing. “There’s this whole transformation beginning to happen – we’ve got people starting to shadow our members of staff, apply for jobs here and volunteer in the gallery.”
Shaw says that putting the community at the heart of things, not the art, has been key to Firstsite’s newfound success.
Art changed the course of Shaw’s life, and she’s the first to say it. Having grown up with a mother who was an art teacher, Shaw was passionate about the subject from an early age. After completing a self-funded MA in art at Goldsmith’s in London, she volunteered at Compton Verney in Warwickshire for three months.
“I stayed with my cousin close by and slept in his cupboard under the stairs because he didn’t have a spare room,” Shaw says. “I babysat for him so that he could have a life and he fed me and lent me a bike so I could cycle to Compton Verney.”
But Shaw is acutely aware that this was a lucky situation to be in. “One of the problems that I have now is that, even though that situation was really quite crap, I could afford to do that. Even though I was scrounging pasta and pesto off my cousin – I wasn’t by any means destitute,” she says.
“There are people who really cannot get a foot in the door of something like that and it’s a massive problem. That’s something we’re trying to crack here at Firstsite.”
Shaw describes a school trip when she was 18 years old to see a Donald Judd exhibition to Modern Art Oxford, where she found herself intimidated by the space, so has always been familiar with the barriers that might exist for so many people entering art galleries.
Via working for an arts commissioning company in Bath, then becoming the senior curator for Art on the Underground in London, onto working as the deputy head of culture for the Mayor of London, in 2012 Shaw returned to Modern Art Oxford to work as head of programme. She was appointed by director Michael Stanley, who died tragically in 2012 aged 37.
“I’d met Mike at Compton Verney, back in my cupboard days,” Shaw says. “He was always somebody that you could talk to – I pitched a terrible exhibition idea to him once and he didn’t laugh, you know. He was a gem.”
Shaw had wanted to work in the same organisation as Stanley again for a while. “Then somebody sent me the job advert for Modern Art Oxford, and it was when I was at the Mayor’s Office, and I thought this is it, bingo. I applied, I got the job, and then Mike died, and it became a different thing entirely. I had never walked into a place that felt like it was in 100% shock. It was really hard.”
Ever the hard worker, Shaw persevered, creating as imaginative a programme as possible with her team, which really picked up pace with a Jeremy Deller exhibition on William Morris and Andy Warhol.
Then Paul Hobson, who was the head of the Contemporary Art Society, joined as director of the gallery.
“Paul was like a ray of sunshine. He’s the most positive person ever,” Shaw says. “And that in itself is so generative.” It seems that it’s now Shaw’s turn to do what Hobson has done for Modern Art Oxford.
“I do quite like a pickle,” says Shaw. “There’s a lot of license inside a pickle – that’s the world’s weirdest sentence. But there’s a lot of room to do things if they aren’t working well. People generally look for somebody to come in and turn things around.”
Sally Shaw at a glance
Sally Shaw has been the director of Firstsite, in Colchester, since 2016.
She has an MA in curating contemporary art. While studying, she was appointed as the exhibition, residency and gallery manager of Spike Island in Bristol, and became the curator in residence at HMP Leyhill, before founding Lot Gallery in Bristol.
She was appointed as director of Media Art Bath in 2003, then senior curator for Art on the Underground in London in 2006.
In 2010 she became deputy head of culture for the Mayor of London and oversaw Olympics commissions, before becoming the head of programme at Modern Art Oxford.
Firstsite at a glance
Firstsite was set up in 1994 in Colchester’s 18th-century Minories building and moved to its new home in 2011.
The gallery cost £28m and was designed by the Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly.
Firstsite was not well-received by local people and it soon ran into financial difficulties.
Running at a severe deficit by 2015, the gallery has seen a slow but steady turnaround from 2016, when Sally Shaw joined as director.
The gallery team has focused on engaging local communities and now runs exercise and art activity days where a free meal is provided during the school holidays, which has proved a great success.
It is now an Arts Council England National Partner Organisation and has launched a series of Arts Council Collection exhibitions, led by different under-represented communities in Essex. The first is Super Black (until 12 January 2020).
The gallery has been shortlisted for the 2019 Freelands Award of £100,000.