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New director takes over Firstsite
MATTHEW Rowe is under no illusions.
“I know Firstsite has had its problems. I was aware it was a project fraught with difficulties and, like many publically-funded capital projects, it had a difficult gestation period.”
Matthew Rowe is an intelligent and measured man.
He is also positive, focussed and passionate about contemporary art and his new responsibility, Colchester’s Firstsite contemporary art venue.
Mr Rowe, 43, has taken over as Firstsite director and it is a challenge he relishes.
He has impressive credentials. He studied History of Art at York University before studying for a postgraduate degree at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.
The Tate St Ives gallery opened in June 1993 and the following month, Mr Rowe began work there.
What he learnt in those early days, has stood him in good stead throughout his career.
“It was an amazing experience,” said Mr Rowe, “in seeing how an organisation could transform a town.
“But I think the Tate was slightly naive in thinking it would be plain sailing.
“I think they took their eye off the ball in terms of the community.”
It is not a mistake he intends to make at Firstsite.
Mr Rowe is all too aware of the importance of community involvement.
He said: “I have great admiration for what has been achieved here.
“There is a journey to go on, as with any public institution, and I am looking forward to working with the team, the stakeholders and partners to enable Firstsite to reach its full potential.
“It has a tremendous reputation in terms of supporting young and emerging artists and giving them the opportunity to develop their work and has an amazing public programme in terms of working in the community.
“We want to make it an inclusive experience here in the building and also through our partnership programmes in the community.
“It is slightly bizarre Firstsite has been criticised as being elitist - the learning and outreach programmes work with thousands of youngsters.”
His optimism is grounded in realism.
He knows the criticisms which were levelled at Firstsite in its early days.
The cost of the gallery almost doubled from the original estimate of £14.8 million to the final figures of £25 million.
Throw in years of delays and Colchester’s iconic gallery had a difficult birth.
Mr Rowe, again, is reasoned in his response.
“Quite rightly there were some robust questions asked but I think the organisation is beginning to answer its critics.”
About 170,000 people visited the venue in its first year - 10,000 ahead of target. It is hoped a similar number will visit this year.
“We want to bring contemporary art to a broad audience,” said Mr Rowe. “That is through outstanding exhibitions and the best challenging contemporary art.”
Mr Rowe’s last job was as the artistic director of the Towner Contemporary Art Museum in Eastbourne.
The similarities between the Towner and Firstsite are striking.
The new Towner opened in April 2009 in an £8.58 million purpose-built gallery. Both are part of Plus Tate partnership and regularly funded by the Arts Council England.
During his time at the Towner, Mr Rowe won plaudits for the gallery’s successes including record visitor numbers and quality exhibitions.
The gallery is also about the same distance from London as Firstsite. Critics have said there is no future to a gallery competing with galleries in the capital. But Mr Rowe rebutts this.
“I don’t think there is such a thing as being too close to London.
“Some of the exhibitions Firstsite is doing, you could not imagine at any venue in London.
“I think we are establishing a profile and it is time to cement that.”
Mr Rowe brings fresh eyes to Firstsite.
He accepts criticism over the swathes of unused white wall space in Firstsite and said he believed it would be possible to better use the “architectural space of the building”.
“I think there has been some disquiet about the amount of white, empty wall space in the building.
“The design of the architecture, which is a landmark in terms of UK centres, is a unique experience.
“It is not a white cube as many galleries are, it is an active space.
“We could use the white sides but not all the time.
“The foyer, too, is a key opportunity for some large installations and there is potential to use space outside the building.”
Mr Rowe also recognises the gallery must earn its keep.
“We have tremendously generous public funders. We have to be thinking about how we can maximise our income and also the private investment.
“Public funding in decreasing across the board and we need to think of innovative ways to deal with that.”
Mr Rowe lives by his balanced philosophies - he has to, he is a West Ham United fan.
“As a student, I took advantage of the superb student discount and went every week. I also travelled with them.
“Anyone who supports West Hamm is not in it for the glory. You are there for the art and the craft of the playing.”