Wells wonder: We look inside the superb new arts centre
The new £5m heritage centre Wells Maltings aims to attract world class events to the north Norfolk coast, while being a vital community resource bringing local people together
Ask Simon Daykin why the residents of a small seaside town should have a £5m centre for art and cultural activities and he replies as though it’s obvious; “Why shouldn’t they have a world class heritage and cultural centre? They deserve it.”
Wells Maltings has its official opening this month and, just days into its ‘soft launch’ during carnival week in the summer, the director is happy with the way things are going. The café is open and doing a roaring trade; the Connection: Open 2018 art exhibition is proving popular; and lots of people are coming in for a cuppa and a look around.
“We’re not fully ready yet, but one thing in this town is that you have to be open by July 21. You have to catch the tourist trade,” says Simon.
But while it is important not to miss out, Simon says he does not want the Maltings to be seen as “just another tourist attraction”.
By the same token, it is not just a museum, or just a concert hall, or just an exhibition space.
“Our plan is ‘Come on in’. I don’t mind why people come in – as long as they think the building is theirs”
All the rooms can be adapted to whatever purpose is required. Walls can be moved aside to form a large area for exhibitions, workshops and parties, or made more intimate for a yoga class or local club meeting. Even the 133 seats in the auditorium can be retracted, turning a theatre/ cinema into an open space. The café area could easily be transformed into a live music venue – and then back again.
There’s a visitor information desk in the foyer, and you can buy cards, jams and honey created by local people. “We’re celebrating what we’ve got,” says Simon.
It hasn’t been an easy ride to get to this point. Initial plans were met with suspicion and concerns that the community would not be able to afford to use the facilities or that it would be solely for artists and the ‘intelligentsia’. But, it turns out, lots of local groups have been getting in touch, and a timetable of events is taking shape.
“Our bread and butter is the people of Wells. And we have been swamped with people wanting to hire space. A real variety of users are coming through, which is exactly why we built this.”
The design of the building itself has been contentious. Clad in brass, it stands out from the other buildings on Staithe Street, but with much of the original Grade-II listed building still in place, the design blends old and new – much like the centre aims to do with its mix of heritage and opportunity.
A permanent fixture in this ever-changing landscape is an interactive display about the town beyond the beach, fish and chips and photo-friendly landscape.
“The story of Wells and the heritage of Wells hasn’t been fully shared,” says Simon. “We have a responsibility to share these stories so people know about the area.”
This is done through old photographs, films and soundscapes so visitors can see and listen to the people who shaped the town. Local people voice the display, and some of the characters featured have been ‘brought to life’ by actors to visit local schools to chat to pupils about life then and now.
There is the possibility of more outside events, but for now, despite (or maybe because of) more than 20 years’ experience running arts and heritage venues elsewhere, he is happy to go with the flow.
“We made a decision not to do everything at once,” says Simon. “It will take around two years to bed in and we’re not afraid to learn as we go. If something works, it works. If it doesn’t, we put it away and do something else.”
And there is no shortage of advice. All the food and drink in the cafe and bar is locally sourced – the draught beer, Malt Coast, has to travel just five minutes up the road – and during this interview a woman chipped in to ask why a certain local gin was not available. Simon assured her that if there was demand, it might be on offer in the future.
“We don’t really have a plan,” he says. “Right now our plan is
‘Come on in’. I don’t mind why people come in – they can come in to be curious, for a leaflet or a coffee... as long as they think the building is theirs.”
The Maltings project was funded with £5m in grants and donations but now it has to sustain itself without financial help from outside. “Art, activities, education, learning, community – they are not profit makers,” he says, intimating that the café has a big role to play in keeping everything going.
With a core team of seven staff, plus seasonal back-up and around 100 volunteers manning the box office, information desk and stewarding the exhibitions, Simon hopes the Maltings will have the same effect on Wells as the Tate and the Turner Contemporary art galleries had on St Ives and Margate.
“When they opened, people said ‘This isn’t what we expected’,” said Simon.“I see that and hear this here.”
ABOVE: Artworks in the grounds of the maltings and the interior of the new arts centreBELOW: Simon Daykin, general manager and Wells Maltings Trust director