Camulodunum, Firstsite, Colchester

A modern art gallery is a welcome addition to Britain's oldest town, but its first show is timid

Some time in the past 10 years, the director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts was interviewing for a curator's job.

One applicant came from a gallery in a small town in Germany. How many visitors did her venue have? Five thousand, came the cheery reply. A week or a month, pressed the director. There was a pause. Then, with a puzzled smile, the would-be curator said, "A year, I mean."

The British are latecomers to the idea of contemporary art as an essential part of civic life. Few German towns of more than a few thousand will not have some kind of modern gallery or Stiftung, subsidised by local taxes. A town the size of Colchester – population 175,000, and due to pass 200,000 in the next few years – would have several. Yet England's oldest town has had just one modern gallery, and that a small affair in a Tudor house, run by the local art school. Now, after a predictable three-year delay with funding, it has another: Firstsite, by the Uruguayan architect, Rafael Viñoly.

Viñoly is a fine designer, adept at making intimacy grand and grandeur intimate. His Colchester gallery is no exception. Clad in warped copper sheeting, Firstsite has the air of a peculiarly elegant tramp steamer that has somehow run aground off Colchester High Street. Inside, the feel is of Eero Saarinen's TWA terminal, and none the worse for that – lofty, curved white spaces that welcome visitors without patronising them.

The question is what to put inside. This week, the schools commissioner identified coastal or estuary towns such as Colchester – largely monocultural, with a history of entrenched unemployment – as the most socially deprived in Britain. Firstsite is a local addition in the way that the Turner Contemporary is to Margate.

Like the Turner – and unlike, say, Tate St Ives – Firstsite does not have a permanent collection. That can be liberating. A collection imposes the duty of showing it, especially when – my heart sinks as I write the words – it is of local interest. For years, Tate St Ives showed St Ives art, much of it good, some of it of national (even international) importance. In the end, though, the gallery's local-first policy made the St Ives School seem parochial, which was hardly the point. It took a leap of faith on the part of the last director to turn the Cornish Tate into a first-class modern and contemporary gallery.

Which is to say that a gallery like Firstsite will have several, possibly conflicting, calls on its time. It will need to foster a sense of civic pride, but it will also need to offer its audience something more than localism. Last, for future funding purposes, Firstsite will have to put bums on seats. Five thousand visitors a year may play well in Essen, but it is not going to cut the mustard in Essex.

Colchester's city fathers hope that their new gallery, affectionately dubbed "the Golden Banana", will attract a hundred times that number. Alas, I doubt that the first exhibition will hasten them on their way. Called Camulodunum, the Roman name for Colchester, it bears all the signs of trying to do everything at once.

Unlike St Ives, there was at least no Colchester School to deal with. There is the grandeur that was Rome, however, and this, in the form of a case of Roman pottery, marks the show's starting point. To prove that contemporary art is not scary, this vitrine sits near another work, called Journey into the Heart of the Night, by the clay-fingered neo-Britartist, Rebecca Warren. AD200 and AD2000: it's all art, right? And somehow, unexpectedly, all Colchester.

From here you can follow the local trail to Grayson Perry (a Chelmsfordian rather than a Colchestrian, but at least from the right county), whose ceramic God is Sex sits in another glass box. This takes us either to photographs of The Neo-Naturists, a group of 1980s performance artists, of which the young Perry was one, or, via materials, to the Urbis Paganus photo-collages of the American artist, Richard Hawkins. From here you can double back to Sarah Lucas – clay again – or to Edwardian photographs of the Colchester Pageant. And then ... well, take your pick: Henry Moore (Roman-looking helmet), Barbara Hepworth (seaside holidays in Norfolk, almost Essex), Robert Smithson (I'm not sure: archaeology, maybe?), Bill Woodrow (don't know), etc. For what it's worth, I'm with the Germans in believing that every town should have a modern gallery, and I very much hope that this one works. It's beautiful, and it's necessary. But it will need to be brave, too, and Camulodunum isn't, or not enough.

Next Week:

Charles Darwent visits Grayson Perry's Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman at the British Museum

Art Choice

Stick your head in the clouds and make an effort to catch Tate Liverpool's René Magritte exhibition The Pleasure Principle before it closes on 16 Oct. In London, the V&A tackles that shiny, slippery Postmodernism with an eclectic collection of art, architecture, fashion and pop culture. Enjoy its Style and Subversion (till 15 Jan 2012).

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture