I went to Colchester’s controversial  and attention grabbing “FirstSite”, the new name for our long awaited Visual Arts Facility or VAF (I preferred to call it the Visual Arts Gallery – but the acronym boffins turned that down) for lunch today, my first visit since getting shown round in my hard-hat and steel toe-caps by a hunky builder back in February. It really hasn’t changed that much, but sadly the builder was nowhere to be seen.

I like what they’ve done with “Vomit Alley” which now offers one of several clear approaches to the sweeping golden curves of the building, past some nice looking but randomly located mosaic benches (outside the outreach centre). However once you get close you can feel vaguely exposed, caught in the shadows and reflections from the looming glassy Glencoe of the front windows.

Firstsite felt proud to be crowned winner of "Robot Wars".

The entrance lobby is neat and unfussy, what you’d expect, although on a much smaller level, from a modern art gallery. I particularly like how the shop is subtly hidden away in a corner rather than being sprung upon you like they normally do in these places. Sadly they’ll probably get wise to this and block the entrance with a table full of key fobs and mugs.

As you follow the curves, past the pokily discreet toilets which are in front of what I recall being a cramped “auditorium” with no stage space (missed an opportunity for lunchtime music concerts there – although they can show “art films” which sound fun), you pass my favourite part of the building, the Berryfield Roman mosaic re-assembled underneath a pane of reinforced glass.

Berryfield Mosaic - the best time on the tiles Colchester has to offer.

It’s designed so people can walk over it, but everyone is being respectful and nice; gathering at the edges for a good look.  Further on you reach the cafe (serving a couple of cakes) and the restaurant (which isn’t particularly well signalled, but I guess if you can afford to eat there you already know where to sit), overlooking a pleasant landscaped area as opposed to the greasy misery of the soon to be defunct (allegedly) bus station. At the back there’s more conference facilities and a two room learning area.

I still can’t get used to the curves, and feel a little dizzy, especially when viewing the only slightly smug photographs of Colchester’s Great and Good (including some fun shots of Damon & Graham from Blur back when they still had acne and had to carry their own kit) on the way towards the cafe, which are hung at a 65 degree angle. I can only reason that this method of viewing is designed with the sarcastic denizen of Essex in mind, as people in these parts do tend to tilt their heads to one side when they’re not convinced by something.

A sarcastic Essex child considers the art on the sloping walls of Firstsite.

And what of the art? Well, tagged onto an exhibition celebrating Colchester’s historical heritage (Camulodunum), there’s several large’ish sculptures (giant fingers (apparently a representation of the shattered hand of the Statue of Liberty – I liked it, although it wasn’t as fun as Cloverfield ), bicycles stuck together, buckets, tripods), some of which smack massively of the Imperial Wardrobe, as though the curator was inspired by a stroll in a Belgian Park.

Bike-cows - which is how you get Pannier cheese allegedly.

There’s also a nice selection of early printed work, but nothing with that “Wow” factor (like Louis Bourgeois’s giant spider in Tate Modern) that would befit the opening of such a shiny statement of a building. Maybe that’s the point, and you should stand outside to enjoy Firstsite at it’s finest, because whilst inside it’s pleasant, it just doesn’t have the size or clever use of space that it needs. There are pictures of nude women with paint on their norks though, so some people will be happy.

I went to the shop as I was hoping to find a nice card for my boss’s engagement, and it tells you what you need to know about Firstsite’s ambitions and values. There was only a very small collection of ironic (non art related) greetings cards amongst the random science museum gifts. There were a couple of art books (OK books with the world “Art” upon them, there can be a difference) and some expensive ceramics for sale (with no connection to the exhibitions). Heart-breakingly there were NO postcards of artwork available (the only thing I buy at galleries) – and the cheapest items for sale were £1.50 “I heart Firstsite” pins. It may be a free facility but browsers on a budget need not even bother opening their wallet unless they’re prepared to advertise the brand is the message.

On the way back, I strolled through Minories Love Bistro lovely welcoming gardens, browsed the card selection and checked out the exhibitions. There’s very little real difference in terms of interest and inspiration within the humble Minories  galleries (in fact I must just plug that from 25th October the very lovely Pam Dan from Wivenhoe will be exhibiting new works inspired by the reedbeds of East Anglia there – which is well worth checking out).

Given the statement Firstsite is making, is it wrong to expect a little more of a difference? Hopefully they’ll find their feet and make the most of the building, and it won’t end up just being a very posh little conference centre.

Having said that, I did meet a friend next to the Statue of Liberty’s crumpled hand who I hadn’t seen for ages – so nice one Firstsite!

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