The West Norfolk Artists Association was really the vision of one man, Michael Bell, who has very kindly provided the following account of those early days. At present, Michael divides his time between the UK and France, but he still keep in close touch with the WNAA.
The WNAA grew out of my early involvement with Open Studios when, in 1998, I took over from Anabel Symington as the representative of West Norfolk on the North Norfolk sub-committee of Open Studios. It was a time of crisis for Open Studios, with chaos in the central management in Norwich and a feeling among many artists that they had been badly let down. Indeed it was widely feared that the whole system was on the point of collapse.
In an attempt to find a solution, the then arts officer for North Norfolk, Jan Legge, hosted a meeting of artists in Cromer, the principal outcome of which was the launching of a research project into exhibition spaces in North Norfolk under the title the North Norfolk Exhibition Project which subsequently gave rise to the Salthouse exhibitions. Being involved in Open Studios, Anabel and I attended and were impressed by the Arts Officer’s commitment to promoting the arts in her region.
We asked if we could be involved but to our dismay we were told “No you can't: you’re from West Norfolk. Talk to your own arts officer.” So, having found out who she was, we rang Jane Falkner for an appointment and asked “Why is all the money being spent on the performing arts? What about the visual arts?” We were told: “I don’t know where they are – they won't come out of the woodwork!” However she seemed very much in favour of doing something specifically for visual artists, so we discussed the possibility of organising a research project for West Norfolk similar to the one in North Norfolk and she promised to help us obtain the funding for it.
But there was an important condition: funding could not be given to individuals. It had to be channelled through an organisation . . . ideally an artists’ association.
To me who had recently spent some twenty years lobbying the European Commission in Brussels, this presented no problem, but there was a question which the members would have to decide at the outset: should the association be a body set up exclusively to seek funding for the (as yet unidentified) project, or should it have a wider remit to promote the general interests of artists, notably by providing them with opportunities for exposure and representing them before the local authorities – in other words to be the voice of artists to local government?
Having access to the Open Studios mailing list, I invited all the artists on it who came from West Norfolk to a meeting at High Barn, Stanhoe and on 13 October 2000 a surprising number crammed themselves into our fairly large sitting room – the birthplace of the West Norfolk Artists Association. I put the question to them and, to my surprise, almost everyone opted for the wider remit. We elected our first chairman, artist Syd Davidson (alas, no longer with us) and me as Secretary, a position I held for the first two or three years before handing over to Linda Roast.
Overtaken by events, the idea of a research project seemed to die a natural death and nothing more was heard of it.
Since then the association has gone from strength to strength as can be seen from the size of its membership. But it could not have got off the ground without the active support of local arts officers such as Jane Falkner and Liz Falconbridge to whom I would like to pay a special tribute.