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The Story of Assembly Arts

Alan Morris

Long form Journal article: Alan Morris describes how Assembly Arts came about

The story of Assembly Arts began on 17 February 2022 when Sarah Galloway, Rae Tribbick and I were first shown around the empty Assembly Rooms.  For a number of months previously we had been looking for a joint studio space where Rae and Sarah could practice and teach. I was also looking for premises where I could set up a teaching darkroom for public use and promote my creative mentoring practice.


As soon as we entered the Assembly Rooms we could all see the potential that the beautiful building offered. Looking back at the photographs that we took on that cold February day (including us all wearing face masks...) it is easier to remember the impact of the building having been empty for a couple of years. Leaves and unopened mail had built up in the entrance whilst all the surfaces in the building held a thick layer of dust.


Outside we discovered the courtyard garden, overgrown and in need of some t.l.c. Yet all three of us saw the potential for the building as an arts organisation right in the centre of Lancaster. We could see beyond the failing plaster and trailing wires and envisaged a space for artists to occupy and practitioners to teach. 


When cleaned and painted the large entrance space would make an excellent gallery, whilst the courtyard would provide a valuable break out area during the summer months.  The main dance hall would be ideal for creating individual artists spaces, whilst the secondary dance hall would be perfect as a teaching and events room.


At this early stage Sarah had envisaged being based in the printing-darkroom on the mezzanine floor and Rae thought that she may occupy the old reception office on the first floor.

With our imaginations and ambitions fired we soon set about devising a business plan. We also had to think of a name for the organisation and in due course set up a partnership agreement between the three of us. We knew that the city council would be accepting offers on the lease from other organisations but we had no idea who else might be applying. Throughout March and April 2022 we worked on our business plan, prior to completing it in May and submitting our tender document to the city council on 22 June 2022.


During this time we sought the help and advice from a range of individuals and organisations, all of whom were generous in their support.  We spoke to a range of city officers and staff, representatives from the Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service, other organisations and a number of contractors and suppliers. Having originally considered being called LVA (Lancaster Visual Arts) we settled on Assembly Arts, which better reflects both our location and collegiate ethos and our submission was made in this name.  


Our application required us to indicate how we intended to use the space, what investment we would be making, sustainable plans for the building use and what experience we had.  At this time we were very mindful of the heritage of the grade 2 listed building and we devised our plans around an ability to maintain its historic integrity.  Having submitted our tender document we were very pleased to have our offer accepted a short time after.

Because of the important nature of the Assembly Rooms and its position within a conservation area we were subsequently advised during the summer of 2022 that we would need to seek planning permission for the change of use of the building from dance halls to artist studios. This required quite a bit of research and understanding on our behalf and the process to gain planning took a number of months, culminating in permission being granted at the end of January 2023.  


During this period we were also working on our partnership and fine tuning our business plan. We also started to work on our corporate identity and website, along with making decisions about how the building would be occupied. After considering the spaces further, at this time both Rae and Sarah decided to have a studio in the main dance hall, with the old reception being dedicated as a kiln room and the mezzanine room being available for both screen printing and as a darkroom.


During the autumn and winter of 2022 a number of contractors undertook remedial work throughout the building, including the provision of fire doors, installing a dedicated power supply to the kiln room, general repairs and redecorating the main entrance. After over a year since our first visit we received the keys to the new Assembly Arts on 13 March 2023. At the time of writing there is still work to do and we look forward to welcoming  artists and class participants to Assembly Arts as we complete the refurbishments over the summer months.

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