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New international centre for the visual arts designed by Rafael Viñoly Architects opens in Colchester
firstsite is home for the work of the long established visual arts organisation of the same name.

COLCHESTER.- firstsite, a major new centre for the visual arts, designed by internationally acclaimed Rafael Viñoly Architects, opened in Colchester on Sunday 25 September 2011.

firstsite is home for the work of the long established visual arts organisation of the same name. Spread over 3,200 square metres on a landmark site bounded by the original Roman wall of Colchester, and set in extensive grounds, the new building includes purpose-built gallery spaces for major international exhibitions. It also features a display space to showcase works from the University of Essex’s internationally important collection of Latin American art, extensive learning spaces for children, students and community groups, a destination bar/restaurant and a 190-seat auditorium suitable for film screenings, lectures and events. The building is open every day and into the evening, free to all.

At its heart is the newly restored Berryfield Roman Mosaic, which dates from around AD200. Unearthed in 1923 on the site where firstsite now stands, the Mosaic formed part of the floor of a Roman townhouse. After years in Colchester Castle, the Mosaic has been painstakingly restored and returned to its original home, as firstsite’s only permanent exhibit.

Since firstsite was founded in 1994, it has encouraged thousands of people to get involved in contemporary art, nurturing new talent and providing a network of opportunities for the community to participate in ambitious learning programmes. Alongside this, firstsite has exhibited such internationally acclaimed artists as Louise Bourgeois (1996), Antony Gormley (1999), Bridget Riley (2002), Yoko Ono (2003), and Mark Dion (2005). Louise Bourgeois’ seminal work ‘Spider’ was shown in Colchester in 1996, four years before Tate Modern first exhibited the larger version of the work in its Turbine Hall.

The new building is the product of a strategic partnership between Arts Council England, East of England Development Agency, Essex County Council, Colchester Borough Council, the University of Essex and firstsite. firstsite’s opening is part of a sustained cultural investment programme over the last decade in the East of England, which includes the opening of DanceEast in Ipswich, the expansion of performance facilities at Aldeburgh, the restoration of the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, and the upcoming development of Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, providing a major regional focus for culture in England.

firstsite’s opening exhibition, Camulodunum (the Roman name for Colchester, after the Celtic war god Camulos), celebrates the cultural and artistic heritage of the town and the region, which became established as the capital of Roman Britain. The exhibition puts on show important local historic artefacts alongside works by Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Grayson Perry, JMW Turner, Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei, and four commissions by international contemporary artists: Michaela Eichwald (Germany), Aleksandra Mir (Poland/Sweden/USA), Karin Ruggaber (Germany/UK) and Danh Vo (Denmark/Vietnam).firstsite is one of the partner organisations in the Plus Tate group, which also includes Nottingham Contemporary, Turner Contemporary in Margate, and The Hepworth Wakefield.

Katherine Wood, Director of firstsite, said: ‘I am proud to be opening our spectacular new building – designed by one of the world’s great architects, Rafael Viñoly, for the people of Colchester. So much more than a beautiful gallery attracting art lovers from all over the country, I believe firstsite will be at an important intersection between the community and artists, providing inspiration and encouragement to everyone to explore, create, relax and have fun.’

Cllr Paul Smith, Colchester Borough Council Portfolio Holder for Resources and ICT, said: ‘firstsite’s opening is a crucial milestone in the Borough’s plans to breathe life into the St Botolph’s quarter and establish opportunities to provide lifelong learning and skills development for all. Colchester’s new landmark building for the visual arts, firstsite will be a community hub for our town, county and region. It will draw visitors to Colchester, creating jobs in tourism and retail, and boost the economic growth of Colchester’s shops, hotels and restaurants.’

Helen Lax, Regional Director, Arts Council England, said: ‘It gives us great pleasure that firstsite opens its doors on 25 September. The new building is an important symbol of the vibrant arts scene in Colchester, and we hope it will act as a hub for the continuing development of local artists, as a draw for tourism and a catalyst for the town’s cultural regeneration. firstsite has demonstrated ambition, passion and flair with its opening exhibition, Camulodunum. Renowned work by international artists such as Andy Warhol, JMW Turner and Henry Moore will be presented in an exhibition that at the same time reflects the importance of Colchester’s cultural heritage. This is a perfect mix – demonstrating the importance of firstsite’s aim to be locally relevant and internationally significant.’

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