Aberystwyth Arts Centre had its beginnings in the 1970s when the then University College of Wales, Aberystwyth built the facility with the ambition to serve not just the College, but also the town and the surrounding counties.
The first phase was the Concert Hall (the Great Hall), which opened in 1970. Designed by architect Dale Owen of Percy Thomas Partnership the building was awarded the RIBA Gold Medal for Architecture in Wales. In Autumn 1972 the second phase of the Centre was completed and the Theatre (‘Theatr y Werin’, literally ‘theatre of the people’) came into use. This marked the final phase of the project – and Aberystwyth Arts Centre was born.
From the very beginning the Arts Centre pursued a diverse mixed programming policy, encouraging and supporting local groups and University ensembles and inviting leading professional companies to Aberystwyth. The professional work was made possible through the on-going support of the University as well as support from the Welsh Arts Council and the West Wales Association for the Arts.
The first manager of the Arts Centre, Roger Tomlinson, ran the venue from the planning phases, through the first years until 1975 when he left to take on a similar role for Theatr Clwyd in North Wales. In the early years under Roger Tomlinson’s direction there was some adventurous theatre programming including productions with now very well know names from film and television including Peter Postlethwaite and Julie Walters, and major companies such as Welfare State.
Ken Williams, an ex RAF Wing Commander, who had been Roger Tomlinson’s Administrator, took over as Manager in 1975 with a specialism and love of classical music. As well as nurturing the concert programme, under his direction the first of the musical productions were established. These are now a hugely popular feature of the Centre’s summer programme as well as encouraging young professional talent. Michael Ball one of the UK’s top musical stars had his professional debut in the Centre’s production of Godspell in 1985.
The Visual Arts and Exhibitions Programme was substantially expanded in 1978 with the appointment of Alan Hewson as Exhibitions Officer funded by the Wales Arts Council. As well as expanding the Visual Arts Programme he also established the very successful Arts Centre Café in 1980, the Bookshop in 1981, the Arts Centre film programme in 1983 and in 1984 the Visual Arts Education Programme, the first of community arts and education programmes that were to become one of the keys to the Centre’s success. Alan Hewson was appointed Director 1985.
1985 saw a major change of policy by the Welsh Arts Council. There was a total withdrawal of revenue funding from many of the theatres and arts centres across Wales to focus on producing theatre companies. The University still maintained its valuable core support but the artistic programme and the development of the Centre had to be funded on a different model. Three key strategies were developed in response to this challenging situation. Firstly the Arts Centre needed to be innovative in its approach to artistic programme particularly through partnerships; secondly to develop its links to the community through a growing community arts programme that should aim to be as self financing as possible; and thirdly to substantially expand the Arts Centre’s earned income through the development of its commercial operations.
The use of festivals was seen as a strategic way to develop the artistic programme and attract interested and committed audiences not only locally but national and internationally. Musicfest International Music Festival and Summer School was established by the Arts Centre in 1986, building on links with the University Music Department. It has since grown into a major event in the UK classical music calendar with over thirty concerts and events and over 100 of the most talented young musicians attending the Summer School from the UK and abroad.
The International Ceramics Festival was established in 1987 when the Arts Centre joined forces with North and South Wales Potters Associations to run what is now one the world’s foremost ceramic festivals. The festival attracts over 1,000 potters and ceramicists from around the globe for an amazing weekend in Aberystwyth. The initial impetus for this festival was based in the University’s outstanding collection of twentieth century studio ceramics and the Arts Centre’s work linked to that through associated exhibitions and a growing range of ceramics courses.
Over the next twenty years the Arts Centre established and helped to establish twelve more festivals over a wide range of art forms including children’s literature, poetry, theatre for young people, international theatre, student media, digital storytelling, world music, world cinema, classic cinema, horror films, and is currently developing a photographic biennial and a festival of architecture. Many of these festivals were developed in partnership with a wide range of organisations and individuals and have become key elements in our artistic programme as well as helping to support the work of the University departments.
From small beginnings in 1984 the Community Arts and Education Programme has grown to eventually cover virtually all the art forms. Apart from specific projects and the developing access work the programme earns a significant part of its own funding to allow it to grow and develop.
Commercial development was the third strand to the Centre’s strategy for growth and sustainability. The potential to fully develop this strand was inhibited by the lack of capital investment and it was only with a successful European funding application in 1993 and the Lottery funded redevelopment completed in 2000 that the earning potential from commercial operations was fully realised, which has contributed so much to the success of the Arts Centre.