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

EDP Norfolk - - INSIDE - WORDS: Tracey Bagshaw PHO­TOS: Matthew Usher

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

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