WHO WE ARE
Queens Park Arts Centre is the hub, heart and home of the arts in Buckinghamshire. Based in Aylesbury Vale but with a reach across the county and beyond, the centre’s ethos is ‘arts for all’ – our chief aim being to provide affordable access to high-quality arts resources, opportunities, platforms and content.
QPAC operates as a venue offering workshops, performances, exhibitions and events, and is led by Artistic Director Sarah Lewis. The Centre is also a creative hub working in partnership with local and national organisations on many different projects and initiatives, including an extensive roster of outreach work aiming to bring the arts to a diverse range of community settings.
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Our participatory workshop programme covers a wide range of artistic disciplines, including pottery, painting and drawing, textiles, woodwork, dance, drama, music and mixed crafts. We offer an eclectic mix of live theatre, music and comedy at our Limelight Theatre, as well as free-to-view exhibitions from local and national artists, and popular community events.
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ARTS FOR ALL IN AYLESBURY AND BEYOND
Since 2013, Queens Park have worked extensively on outreach work aiming to bring the artistic spirit of QPAC to as much of our local community as possible. We’ve also launched projects that have taken us further afield across the country. From bespoke school art projects to special theatre performances at large-scale community events, QPAC is determined to bring the arts to everyone.
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THE QPAC POTTERY
Pottery has been the cornerstone of our crafts programme for more than forty years, and our facilities are amongst the best and most popular in the county. We run more than 16 participatory workshops every week, providing tutored opportunities for complete beginners, afterschool and holiday sessions for children and teens, and a class for adults with disabilities. We also offer untutored sessions for experienced ceramicists.
The QPAC Pottery also explores specialist processes such as raku firing, and has welcomed world-renowned potters such as John Leach, Chris Bramble and Siddig El’nigoumi. Pieces by Leach and Bramble are amongst those held in our ceramics archive. More recently, Elaine Wells – who appeared on ‘The Great Pottery Throwdown’ – has led sessions at the Centre and opened our Makers’ Fair. Elaine has also worked with Kate Malone, who welcomed QPAC for a private viewing and talk during her residency at Waddesdon Manor, and who has exhibited in our gallery shop Artisan.
Our pottery department is overseen by experienced ceramicist Charlie Butters, who not only specialises in throwing, but also enjoys developing new glazes and promoting the Centre’s facilities and opportunities through regular workshops. The department is supported by a loyal team of longstanding experienced tutors.
1905-1976 – Queens Park School
Queens Park School was established in the early 1900s. The Edwardian building now occupied by Queens Park Arts Centre was the infants school, with two similarly-designed buildings – located to the east of the main site on what is now a housing development – acting as the boys and girls junior school. The school kitchen is now the Centre’s dance studio, whilst the painting studio stands on the site of a storage facility formerly used by the county education department.
Famous students at the school include the poet Vernon Scannell, and local music heroes John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett, who’ve returned regularly to perform at the Centre’s Limelight Theatre. John has often remarked that he takes great delight in his old classroom now being the Limelight Bar; whilst Willy recalls being paid by the headmistress to blow up the tyres on her car during breaktime – unaware it was he who had let the air out in the first place…
The school was used as a hospital facility during the First World War, and a plaque in the foyer commemorates the staff and “old boys” known to have fallen during the conflict. Queens Park School was closed down in 1976.
1978-1980 – Establishing Queens Park Arts Centre
QPAC was originally funded by Buckinghamshire County Council (which merged with Aylesbury Vale District Council in 2020 to become Buckinghamshire Council). The first Artistic Director of QPAC was Malcolm Thackwray – a graduate of the Guildford School of Art and former associate in the studio of civic sculptor William Mitchell.
Starting in 1978, the first stages of the development process involved renovating the derelict building and making it fit for purpose. As custom branding and publicity materials were developed, the Centre recruited and supported a dedicated team of volunteers to help run workshops, raise funds, and so much more. Opening in 1980, Queens Park initially operated only a limited programme of workshops. However, public demand saw the Centre quickly develop a packed roster of activities running nearly every day of the week.
From the outset, great importance was placed on the Centre’s ‘Arts for All’ ethos, which remains the mission statement of the Centre to this day. Volunteer support has always been an essential part of Queens Park’s operations, with tutors’ expertise, skills and enthusiasm enabling the venue to run arts and crafts classes every week for the benefit of children and adults alike. This means that affordable opportunities and informal ‘hands on’ sessions have been continually available to people from Aylesbury and beyond for over 40 years.
1980-1998 – An Expanding Programme
The Centre’s programme quickly developed, with exhibition spaces established alongside the Centre’s ever-popular annual Christmas Craft Fair. In 1983 – following a series of performances staged in what was once the Queens Park School hall – a purpose-built auditorium was opened as part of QPAC’s range of facilities. The Limelight Theatre was designed by Malcolm Thackwray and named by Dee Sanderson, who spearheaded the initiative to establish a theatre space at QPAC. Dee’s daughter Erika – herself a professional actor and director – continues to be a driving force in theatre projects at the Centre to this day.
The intimate 120-seater space has attracted numerous star names over the years, including Eddie Izzard, Lee Evans, Shaun Hughes, Jo Brand, Chris Ramsay and bands such as Show of Hands, JUMP, Callow Saints and The Dung Beatles. Theatre companies who have performed at the venue include Theatre de Complicite, Hull Truck and Frantic Assembly. The Limelight also has a strong history of supporting in-house and community productions, which continues through the Centre’s production company Unbound Theatre.
Since the early days of it’s operations, QPAC has enjoyed a working partnership with Aylesbury Youth Action. Launched in 1971, AYA provide volunteering opportunities for young people. They are based at QPAC and provide a suite of projects to benefit the community. Another long-term partner is Jigsaw Theatre, who provide workshops and performance opportunities for adults with disabilities.
1998-2002 – Becoming Independent
That the Centre survived when County Council funding was withdrawn in 1998 was remarkable, and largely due to the hard work and commitment of the hundreds of supporters determined to keep it going. Following Malcolm Thackwray’s retirement, senior staff member, Peter Riley and Treasurer for the Board of Directors, Tony Tomblin were instrumental in drawing up proposals to continue the Centre as an independent organisation. By the end of 1998 the venue had become a Company Limited by Guarantee named Queens Park Arts Centre Ltd, in addition to being a registered charity.
Amanda Eels took over as Artistic Director between 1998 and 2002, as the Centre began to develop its programme in light of its new-found independent status. The roster of weekly workshops remained at the heart of QPAC’s operations, alongside theatre performances, exhibitions and special events.
2002-2009 – Securing the Future
In 2002, the role of Artistic Director was taken up by Sarah Lewis, who joined the Centre with experience in both community and commercial arts management. Sarah’s appointment followed that of Peter Cooper as QPAC’s chairman in 2001, roles they both hold to this day.
The immediate concerns facing the Centre were the lack of ownership of the free-hold to the site, made more precarious by plans for the housing development established on the rest of the former Queens Park School site to expand.
Under its new Artistic Director’s leadership, the Centre not only launched an ambitious fundraising campaign to buy the freehold to the venue (securing £300,000 in grant funding and a further £25,000 through community fundraising), but also rebranded itself to bring its workshop and theatre strands under the same identity.
By the deadline in 2009, QPAC was able to purchase the land on which it was located and safeguard its long-term future. Raising the money to buy the freehold was very much a team effort. We were grateful our core funders, the William Harding’s Charity, supported our efforts and provided a significant grant. They continue to support the Centre and their current core funding is much appreciated.
2010-2012 – Refurbishment
Over the next few years, funding in excess of £200,000 was secured for the Stage 1 of the Centre’s Refurbishment Project. Overseen by Sarah alongside the QPAC board of directors and a local architect, this initiative included structural repairs and improvements to the external façade of the building, to ensure that it was watertight and energy efficient.
There were extensive repairs made to the roof, windows, pebble-dashing, drains, guttering and chimneys. In addition, replacement external signage, a new website and online box office system (replacing a paper-based approach!), new logo, redesigned brochure and refurbished theatre seating were all put in place.
The Centre’s activities continued to develop, too. After a period of absence the annual Art & Craft Fair and the ever-popular Queens Park Pantomime returned to the Centre; both have become lynch-pins of the Queens Park calendar, attracting new artists and audiences to the venue whilst providing essential funds which support the Centre throughout the year.
2013-present – Arts For All
Under its Artistic Director’s leadership, QPAC have undertaken a transformative development programme in recent years, which has not only seen further improvements to the fabric of building, but also the planning, development and delivery of outreach projects aiming to diversify the Centre’s creative activities and engage with communities where access to the arts was previously under-developed.
Stage 2 of the Refurbishment Project included repairs and improvements to the inside of the building. In 2017, funding was secured which transformed the Annexe space into a fully-equipped dance studio. This enabled the Centre to establish a firm connection with the Susan Diane School of Dance, run by Principal Maria Payne. Maria has worked closely alongside Sarah and the QPAC team, with SDSD now running workshops throughout the week in the studio, as well as being a key partner in the annual pantomime production.
Funding is now being sought to re-develop the under-utilised part of the site, which will further enhance and extend the Centre’s creative opportunities. The ongoing Refurbishment Project is vital to ensure that the building’s fabric and facilities reflect the quality of the activities taking place within its walls.
The Centre’s roster of weekly workshops continues to expand, with more than 70 classes now running during term time. In addition, a packed programme of special one-off workshops and short-courses have proved enduringly popular, as have the regular school holiday classes for children. Events such as the May Maker’s Fair and Pop-up Christmas Shop have quickly become mainstays of the programme, whilst the gallery shop Artisan – curated by Events & Exhibitions Coordinator Sophie Carr – has attracted new and exciting artistic talent to the Centre.
Volunteers remain an essential part of the Centre, with more than 100 members of the local community donating their time and talents to tutor workshops, run the Coffee Bar and Limelight Bar, welcome people at reception, attend public events on behalf of the Centre, assist with administration and marketing, and to write, direct, design and perform theatrical productions.
The Centre is fortunate to receive some financial support from Buckinghamshire Council – in addition to that of the William Harding’s Charity – in the form of much-needed annual core funding, although around 90% of QPAC’s income is self-generated through workshop fees and ticket sales.
The Centre’s WanderHouse Outreach Project ran from 2013-2019. A successful funding bid to the Arts Council of England enabled the Centre to create a collaborative ‘research and development’ artistic residency opportunity, fulfilled by interdisciplinary artist Pippa North. Following the completion of the residency, the WanderHouse embarked on its creative journey to community settings in the local area, once again securing project funding to establish creative partnerships with thousands of people across Buckinghamshire & Hertfordshire. The project provided access to high-quality arts tuition and sustainable resources, whilst promoting the ethos and activities taking place at Queens Park. Another outreach project, titled ‘Finding the Joy in Making’, took place in 2020. This was funded by the Rothschild Foundation and saw the Centre once again extend its creative reach into the community.
Meanwhile, closer to home, QPAC had become a familiar presence at a wide array of town centre events. The Centre has provided free craft activities and live performances at events such as Aylesbury Town Council’s Soapbox Derby, Aylesbury-on-Sea and Parklife Weekend, Buckinghamshire Council’s WhizzFizzFest and the Aylesbury Town Centre Partnership’s Santa Parade.
QPAC established its own in-house production company – Unbound Theatre – in 2014, led by writer/director Dario Knight in collaboration with theatre makers such as Erika Sanderson, Gareth Johnson, Beatrice Benedek, Pete Benson and Lara Pipistrelle. Unbound have worked on dozens of projects both at the Limelight Theatre and at the aforementioned local events, performing high-quality productions for thousands of people each year. In addition to their creative input into the annual Queens Park Pantomime, Unbound have also taken shows on tour across the country. Several Unbound projects have been commissioned and / or financially supported by Aylesbury Town Council – either commissions as part of their events programme or through their community grant awards.
In 2020, when the COVID-19 outbreak necessitated Queens Park temporarily closing its site to the public, Artistic Director Sarah Lewis led the QPAC team in adapting QPAC’s activities in light of the challenges posed by the pandemic. The Centre quickly developed an ambitious online programme, including a wide variety of Zoom workshops, overseen by Centre Manager Carlotta Tonello. Its ‘Live Creatively’ campaign inspired and shared people’s creative projects undertaken during lockdown, and also saw the production of a prolific amount of free audio and video content by Unbound Theatre.
QPAC was able to reopen between September-December 2020 to run a successful roster of COVID-secure workshops, adapting each of the studio spaces to follow social distancing and other safety procedures. Fundraising played a large part in the resilience of the Centre, with significant financial support from the Cultural Recovery Fund, and generous project funding from the Rothschild Foundation which will support initiatives including a brand new website and box office system, and redesigned branding.
Hub, Heart & Home
Although faced with great challenges as a result of the pandemic, the transformative development programme started by its Artistic Director in 2002 continues, with projects and initiatives now in development to further extend and champion the diversity and representation of the QPAC artistic community, and to continue providing ‘arts for all’ as the hub, heart and home of creativity and culture.
Recognised by The Times as one of the UK’s ‘Top Arts Hotspots’, QPAC is at the heart of the arts scene in the local area. As a member of the steering group for the ‘Buckinghamshire Culture’ project, Artistic Director Sarah Lewis contributed to the development of the new Bucks Cultural Strategy, championing the drive for extending the reach of – and access to – the arts. The close connection with Buckinghamshire Culture continues; in 2021, QPAC’s Exhibitions & Events Coordinator, Sophie Carr, joined its Bucks ‘Cultural Leaders’ programme.
As a charity with a huge breadth of programming on offer and a continued commitment to provide affordable access to the arts, Queens Park Arts Centre remains the creative and cultural hub of Aylesbury & Buckinghamshire, and a much-valued community resource.