Our History


Firstsite began life in 1994 in Colchester’s 18th century Minories building. Our innovative programme of exhibitions and professional development for international, British and local Colchester artists grew and flourished.

In 1996, Firstsite became the first visual arts organisation to dedicate an entire gallery to schools’ art; and education and participation remains central to our mission, making it ideal for school and educational trips in Colchester, Essex.


Firstsite’s success in reaching out to new audiences for contemporary art attracted tens of thousands of visitors, and by the early 2000s, it was clear that the organisation had outgrown its Minories home.

In 2003 a capital partnership was formed, that included Arts Council England, Colchester Borough Council, Essex County Council, the East of England Development Agency, and the University of Essex.

The partnership agreed that a new centre for the visual arts should be the linchpin of a masterplan to develop a creative quarter to the east of Colchester’s historic centre.

An ambitious building programme got underway, which would provide a permanent home for Firstsite, and form part of Colchester’s future heritage here at Lewis Gardens.

2011 and beyond

Firstsite moved to its new home in September 2011, and has since presented world-class exhibitions from award-winning artists including Gillian Wearing, Grayson Perry, Andy Warhol, Lubaina Himid and Martin Parr. In May 2019, we welcomed our millionth visitor!


Firstsite is a national leader in commissioning new art, providing innovative learning opportunities, and supporting the professional development of local and regional artists, as we fulfil our role to bring the transformative power of art to everyone.

Arts Council Collection National Partners Programme 2019-2022

In March 2019, Firstsite was chosen as one of three new partners in the Arts Council Collection National Partners Programme, alongside Sunderland Culture in Tyne and Wear and The Newlyn Art Gallery and The Exchange in Cornwall.

One of the most significant challenges contemporary art organisations face today is overcoming the lack of diversity in our teams, our programmes, our audiences and the voices who influence the way we do what we do and why we do it. If we are serious about being ‘for’ and ‘of’ the British public then we have to find radical ways to completely change the status quo.

At Firstsite, we are using this national collection to begin to learn how to address this national problem. We are doing this by inviting seven groups of people directly into the heart of the organisation to help us re-shape everything we do, how we do it, who it’s for and what creative impact we might have.

The people we are working with have already begun to influence our activity by becoming loyal visitors and collaborators on small-scale projects. They have shared with us many profound ideas and realities that have convinced us that we should hand over the power of our programme to them.

So, for the next three years, every exhibition and project we produce as part of this programme will be co-authored by people who do not currently have a formal role within the gallery team, but who play a vital part in the community of Colchester and East Anglia. People whose circumstances and ideas should be understood by everyone, for us to be in a better position to positively change the world around us.

With the Arts Council Collection, Firstsite will collaborate with the black community leaders of Colchester, the ‘Radical Women of Colchester’, Refugee Action Colchester, Colchester Garrison staff and families, families facing socio-economic barriers, and Firstsite’s own Young Artist Kommunity.


Welcome area at Firstsite. 'Big Hello' (2018) Peter Liversidge. Photo by Jayne Lloyd.

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