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Arnolfini - est 1961

On what would have been his birthday, 8 May, we celebrate the life of Arnolfini’s founder Director Jeremy Rees.

He was born in Bridgwater, in Somerset, to an artist mother and woodwork teacher father, both of whom were involved in running the Bridgwater Arts Centre – the first Arts Council-funded arts centre to open in the country. He left school at 16 to take up an apprenticeship at Allen Davies and Co, a printers in Bristol. They were so impressed by his enthusiasm and rigour that they part-funded him to do a course at the London College of Printing. Here, in the capital, he was able to seriously develop his interest in the contemporary arts, spending much of his free time at theatres, concerts and galleries. He was at the first night of John Osborne’s Don’t Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court Theatre, and a screening of Guy Debord’s Hurlements en Faveur de Sade at the ICA, in which the audience rioted, pulling up the seats.

His desire to start an arts space himself arose when on National Service in Sierra Leone (during which time his life-long concern with inequality also began). This he would do on returning to Bristol, with the support of textile artist Annabel Lawson (who he would later marry and with whom he is pictured below), and the painter John Orsborne and his wife Jenny. None of them were over the age of 25. Arnolfini opened in 1961, run on a voluntary basis, in a small space above a bookshop on the Clifton Triangle, the entrance shared with a bakery. Jeremy made his living teaching typography at the Bath Academy of Art in Corsham, then regarded as one of the most progressive art schools in the country, and where he met many of the artists who exhibited at Arnolfini in the early years – Michael Craig Martin, Gillian Ayres and Howard Hodgkin among them.

Pivotal to Arnolfini’s development was the exhibition New British Sculpture Bristol (1968), in which heavy metal abstract pieces by artists of the St Martins School were exhibited at sites across the city centre. This made them freely available to view by anyone passing by, whether they thought themselves interested in experimental new art or not. The vision and professionalism of the exhibition was recognised by local artists/patrons Peter and Caroline Barker Mill. Their generosity enabled Jeremy to take up the post of Director full time, and set up Arnolfini as an educational charity devoted to ‘encouraging the practice and disseminating knowledge of the contemporary arts’, promoting the work of young artists in particular.

Jeremy would continue to run Arnolfini until 1986, during which time it expanded through several relocations – a building on Queens Square, and the space now occupied by the Watershed, before opening here at Bush House in 1975. Under his leadership, it went from being a small volunteer-led gallery into one of the biggest and most important contemporary arts centres in Europe. In an interview in Venue Magazine shortly after he left, Rees would say: ‘If you ask, ‘What do people want?’ the answer, as we would all say if we’re honest with ourselves, is that we want the familiar; something that doesn’t challenge our perceptions. The Arnolfini is about challenging perceptions’. This challenge was never regarded as a dry endeavour for a select few – rather, it was something to enliven, to relish, an exciting and potentially life-changing offer for the broadest of possible audiences. He said had wanted to put an inscription above the door; ‘Enjoy Yourself!’, which we now have as a welcome to all who come into Bush House.

Jeremy Rees, 1937 – 2003