Photo courtesy of the University of Sussex
Fifty years ago this month, Britain’s first campus-based university arts centre opened its doors at the University of Sussex.
From the outset the Gardner Arts Centre – now the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts – was intended to provide a more avant garde experience for audiences.
Contemporary dance, edgy and political dramas, experimental music, international and arthouse film and other events that defy boundaries continue to inhabit the brick towers of the Basil Spence-designed building at Falmer.
Laura McDermott, the centre’s creative director, was well aware of this history when she took on the job in 2016. The centre, which closed in 2008 when it lost regular funding from the local authority and from Arts Council England, had undergone a £8m refurbishment and was reopened and renamed in honour of film director Sir Richard Attenborough, the university’s former chancellor.
“So many of the university’s founding principles were about trying to do things differently,” she says. “From the bold architecture, to the interdisciplinarity of the curriculum; it was about providing an alternative to the traditional forms of higher education.
“The arts centre was fundamental to this experience. It recognised the arts as a key component in a rounded educational experience – nourishing your soul and developing your personal creativity. It was described as ‘the yeast in life’s solid dough’.”
While it has certainly enhanced campus life, the centre has also been a boon to the wider community, not just as a venue for annual events such as Brighton Festival, Cinecity and Brighton Digital Festival, but as a space for local artists and musicians to rehearse and develop new work.
One of the towers that once housed an electronic music studio has been given a 21st century makeover to become a new digital recording studio. Named after the late Professor of Music, Jonathan Harvey, the facility is for students during term time, but will be used for other projects out of hours.
To celebrate the centre’s half century, Laura and her colleagues are devising a 50-day advent calendar featuring treasures from the archive – counting down from 12 November to 31 December. “We’ll have photos of people who have appeared here, such as Doris Lessing, recordings of past gigs (like Animal Collective in Brighton Festival), and pictures of the space in its various states of construction and renovation.”
They are also recreating the first concert given by the university Symphony Orchestra in 1969. The event features novelist and former student Ian McEwan reading from his original programme notes, and international pianist and composer Shin Suzuma (also an ex-student) playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3 on the Steinway grand piano donated by Tony Banks (the keyboard player from Genesis – a third alumnus).
“Bringing current students together with illustrious alumni feels like the perfect way to celebrate – looking back but with an eye on the future,” says Laura.