Hundreds of local residents, along with the local council, campaigned to stop the maltings building, which dates back to 1839, from being sold. They were successful and in 2016 Southern Maltings was leased to Ware Arts Centre Limited with the purpose of turning it into a community arts centre.
Since taking on the building and opening it up as a varied and versatile arts centre, it has become a crucial hub for the community, offering up a huge selection of events, classes, activities, markets and courses. From live music to film clubs, and gong baths to Yoga, ballet and choir groups, it has become a central creative and cultural force in Ware. “We’ve had people come to new events that we’ve run who have lived in the town for 30 years and have never been in the building,” says Chairperson Fiona Martin.
The centre has galvanised local people says Wilkinson. “As soon as we can get people through the door, then we get them excited,” he says. “Once you walk in, you become part of that community.” The community have responded to that inclusive attitude too, with Southern Maltings having over 80 volunteers registered with them.
Wilkinson himself has been able to experience first-hand the kind of role the centre plays in the community. “I had to retire from work for medical reasons back in 2011 and I got myself in an isolated place,” he says. “This gave me something to be excited about again. Now I have a big room where I can talk to everybody. I’m not creative or artistic so the community aspect is the biggest thing for me.”
For Martin, it’s also about simply providing opportunity for people to explore, experiment, have fun, connect and engage, be it on an artistic or social level. “There needs to be something in our town that’s dedicated to giving people an opportunity to be part of arts and culture,” she says. “To be exposed to it and to make it accessible for everybody. Being creative isn’t just about workshops and courses, it’s also about theatre experiences, musical events, artistic exhibitions and socialising with like-minded individuals. We aim to provide all that and more.”
It’s something that has created a growing sense of community cohesion. “A lot of the other local towns are quite fragmented because we’re in the commuter belt,” says Wilkinson. “But we’ve retained that sense of community and we just want to make it a space that everyone can come in to learn, laugh, grow and do fun things in.”