Our journey – 1974 to present
Lichfield Arts was formed in the early nineteen seventies by an enthusiastic team of volunteers who were keen to promote the arts in the city of Lichfield. Then called the Lichfield District Arts Association (LDAA), the organisation was formed as an umbrella for various different associations. They were the Archaeological Society, The Lichfield Society, The Operatic Society, The Society of Artists, The Lichfield Players, The Orchestral Society and Lichfield Camera Club
In was in 1968 that the various groups met for the first time in the Lichfield Guildhall where one member of each society formed a committee and elected to pay their fees into LDAA.
On the 19th October 1969 the first AGM was held at the Malt Shovel public house to discuss the offer of temporary accommodation in a building formerly used as a Post Office.
Built in 1905 the Post Office on Bird Street had been closed in 1968 when the operation moved to Baker’s Lane, leaving the beautiful building derelict . The offer was accepted on a short lease and the volunteers who worked there had to overcome a number of issues including flooding, challenges with the lease and the building next door collapsing.
A document written in the mid seventies by Tony Clayton Smith, the first Chairman of LDAA, was recently discovered in the Lichfield Arts archives while pulling together the information for this webpage. In it he explains the conditions facing the organisation when the Arts Centre first became available:
“At that time we had no organisation, no home and no money but plenty of ideas and suggestions from everyone remotely connected with the arts….Then the Post Office was suggested. It had been empty for years and nobody knew what was going to happen to it.
Many of us remember the cold Saturday in February when we got the keys and discovered the parquet floor floating in a pool of water and the most remarkable collection of postal paraphernalia and dirt. We talked and talked and voted. By only two votes we decided to have a go (using the Arts centre as a venue), and with three months hard work and the help of Conduit Lands Trust we made it respectable and useable more or less – but oh so cold.
People used to come in and say ‘You’ll have to do something about this floor’, this to people who had spent the last twelve Sunday mornings sticking down parquet blocks with tar. We opened on time with Roger Wilkinson’s production of ‘Under Milkwood’ (believed to be the organisations first event) – a joint effort in the round and so very memorable.”
Despite these challenges the volunteers had the venue ready for its opening on the 30th September 1970. From this point the various societies paid hiring fees for the use of the Arts Centre for their meetings and events. The aims of the Arts Centre and the collective associations were as follows:
“…to co-ordinate local artistic activities, to provide help and facilities to local amateur societies and to provide, promote and finance professional arts and entertainment in the area.”
In its first year, 1971, the Arts Centre held art exhibitions, eighteen live performances and was let over four hundred times for meetings, rehearsals and performance.
Throughout the nineteen seventies the Arts Centre was extended, modernised and its facilities improved. This was funded by fundraising events such as the popular News Years Ball, barbecues and coffee evenings which raised considerable funds.
This was supplemented by grants provided by various trusts and local authorities. In 1975 the bar was opened while an extension was created to the building to improve its facilities further. The new look Arts Centre, with its new extension, was formerly opened by the Earl of Lichfield in May 1976.
A very popular feature of the Arts Centre in the seventies was “The Night Out” and some celebrities of the time were invited to attend. Another very popular event was the annual children’s pantomime, a joint venture with the Civic Hall which, like the Arts Centre, no longer exists.
It was in 1974 that the organisation now known as Lichfield Arts ran its first full season of events. Amongst the early performers to appear at the start of their careers were Jo Brand and Frank Skinner, the former having one of her first ever live gigs at the Arts Centre.
Into the 1980s and the Art Centre, and indeed Lichfield District Arts Association were still thriving, and the events held regularly had a strong local following who appreciated the vibrant, relaxed and high quality offerings. In a time when variety acts were extremely popular the pantomimes, magicians, comedy routines, impersonators and various other artists drew large audiences.
The Arts Centre was also hired out frequently at this point for weddings, functions, workshops, opera’s and birthday parties. Lichfield Players regularly performed with their youth theatre, and LDAA ran successful concerts featuring music in the genres of Folk, Blues, Jazz, Cajun, Roots and Rock.
It was during the 1980s that attending an event at the Art Centre would set back a customer the sum of £1.50, or for concessions 50 pence! In the days long before the internet, purchasing a ticket required completing a booking form and returning to the Arts Centre complete with a cheque and stamped self addressed envelope.
Interestingly Lichfield Arts present phone number is the same one used during the Arts Centre days, albeit with an addition of the number one in the district code. Some of the artists performing in those days are still firm favourites today, as in the image below of a young Mark Skirving of the ever popular King Pleasure and the Biscuit Boys, performing with Lichfield Arts over thirty years ago and still a popular crowd pleaser!
Despite the success of the organisation and its events, the venue itself had become dated and suffered structural issues which caused its closure by the mid nineties. The building has since been demolished and replaced by New Minster House, a new development with a restaurant, retail area and several apartments. Lichfield Arts needed a new home…..
A document in the Lichfield Arts archives dating from the time of the Arts Centre closure describes the need for a new venue and the uncertainty of the time as follows:
“…Volunteers who now look forward to a new century, inside a new building continuing the work begun twenty five years ago, contributing new ideas, keep what is good in the past and seeking to meet the demands of the people of Lichfield and District who have given so much support to the Arts at this venue. May the torch once lit never be extinguished.”
With the Arts Centre being closed in 1995 the organisation relocated to its current office in Donegal House on Bore Street. Without a performance venue of its own the Lichfield District Arts Association began to use venues across the city.
Despite the initial uncertainty, Lichfield Arts would thrive into the new century. The main concert venue became the Guildhall and with festivals now being an important and popular part of the programme of events, new homes were soon found for the annual Real Ale Jazz & Blues Festival at Lichfield Rugby Club and the Folk & Roots Festival also moving to the Guildhall. Outreach began to be more focused on education and events were tailored to the needs of the new venues and changing times.
With the Arts Centre gone the organisation would soon find innovative ways to meet the demands of the Millennium. The 1990s also saw the creation of the Lichfield Fringe Festival, initially in the Art Centre and later Stowe Fields.
In more recent years the Fringe would become Fuse, which today is one of the most popular and important free community festivals in the Midlands. The 1994 Fringe boasted 16 venues across the city as shown in the cover of the rather blandly presented (by todays standards) printed programme below.
By the early 2000s Lichfield Arts concerts were in full swing in the Guildhall, the organisation had adopted to its new situation based in an office at Donegal House and it was the festivals that really began to take off. Despite the huge changes and new challenges the organisation was able to continue to offer the innovative, high quality events which it had rightly earned a reputation for over the previous forty years.
By the start of the second decade of the new century, Lichfield District Arts Association changed it’s name to Lichfield Arts and its status to a CIO (Charity Incorporated Organisation). It still retains the vibrant, community focused, diverse and well respected values it has stood for for so long, yet is always ready to meet new challenges and adapt to yet more change, while still retaining the tenacity and positive attitude that started the journey to where we are now nearly fifty years ago.
With an increased and dynamic social media presence and a strong desire to make a positive impact, Lichfield Arts will keep on constantly evolving, reinventing and remaining relevant, while meeting the demands of the social media and digital age, and facing the challenges and uncertainties of the modern world.
As well as offering events and concerts in popular and valued venues in the city, Lichfield Arts is also enjoying a positive and successful relationship with several new venues, such as The Hub at St Mary’s, The Cathedral Hotel and Sandfields Pumping Station. The latter offering an industrial and unique setting for concerts.
With so many possibilities and so much history, Lichfield Arts is looking forward to continually inspiring, engaging and encouraging, while keeping music and the arts live in Lichfield.