1905-1976 - Queens Park School
Queens Park School was established in the early 1900s. The Edwardian building now occupied by Queens Park Arts Centre was the infants school, with two similarly-designed buildings - located to the east of the main site on what is now a housing development - acting as the boys and girls junior school. The school kitchen is now the Centre's dance studio, whilst the painting studio stands on the site of a storage facility formerly used by the county education department.
Famous students at the school include the poet Vernon Scannell, and local music heroes John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett, who've returned regularly to perform at the Centre's Limelight Theatre. John has often remarked that he takes great delight in his old classroom now being the Limelight Bar; whilst Willy recalls being paid by the headmistress to blow up the tyres on her car during breaktime - unaware it was he who had let the air out in the first place...
The school was used as a hospital facility during the First World War, and a plaque in the foyer commemorates the staff and "old boys" known to have fallen during the conflict. Queens Park School was closed down in 1976.
1978-1980 - Establishing Queens Park Arts Centre
QPAC was originally funded by Buckinghamshire County Council (which merged with Aylesbury Vale District Council in 2020 to become Buckinghamshire Council). The first Artistic Director of QPAC was Malcolm Thackwray.
Malcolm was an artist craftsman in the broadest sense of the term. Others called him a creative polymath but he described himself simply as a maker. A graduate of the Guildford School of Art, Malcolm’s first creative employment was as an associate in the studio of civic sculptor William Mitchell. Shortly after this he was commissioned to design and create a memorial wall to commemorate Robert & Elizabeth Browning’s residence in Little Venice, London.
In 1978 Malcolm was employed to help set-up Aylesbury's new arts centre. His contribution to QPAC was immense. He helped to renovate the derelict building and make it fit for purpose, designed and distributed promotional material, recruited and supported a dedicated team of volunteers, ran workshops, raised funds, and so much more. Opening in 1980, Queens Park initially operated only a limited programme of workshops. However, public demand saw the Centre quickly develop a packed roster of activities running nearly every day of the week.
From the outset, great importance was placed on the Centre's ‘Arts for All’ ethos, which remains the mission statement of the Centre to this day. Volunteer support has always been an essential part of Queens Park's operations, with tutors' expertise, skills and enthusiasm enabling the venue to run arts and crafts classes every week for the benefit of children and adults alike. This means that affordable opportunities and informal ‘hands on’ sessions have been continually available to people from Aylesbury and beyond for over 40 years.
1980-1998 - An Expanding Programme
The Centre's programme quickly developed, with exhibition spaces established alongside the Centre's ever-popular annual Christmas Craft Fair. In 1983 - following a series of performances staged in what was once the Queens Park School hall - a purpose-built auditorium (designed and constructed by Malcolm Thackwray) was opened as part of QPAC's range of facilities. The Limelight Theatre was named by Dee Sanderson, who spearheaded the initiative to establish a theatre space at QPAC. Dee's daughter Erika - herself a professional actor and director - continues to be a driving force in theatre projects at the Centre to this day.
The intimate 120-seater space has attracted numerous star names over the years, including Eddie Izzard, Lee Evans, Shaun Hughes, Jo Brand, Chris Ramsay and bands such as Show of Hands, JUMP, Callow Saints and The Dung Beatles. Theatre companies who have performed at the venue include Theatre de Complicite, Hull Truck and Frantic Assembly. The Limelight also has a strong history of supporting in-house and community productions, which continues through the Centre's production company Unbound Theatre.
1998-2009 - Becoming Independent
That the Centre survived when County Council funding was withdrawn in 1998 was remarkable, and largely due to the hard work and commitment of the hundreds of supporters determined to keep it going. Following Malcolm Thackwray's retirement, senior staff members Tony Tomblin and Peter Riley were instrumental in drawing up proposals to continue the Centre as an independent organisation. By the end of 1998 the venue had became a Company Limited by Guarantee named Queens Park Arts Centre Ltd, in addition to being a registered charity.
Amanda Eels took over as Artistic Director between 1998 and 2002, as the Centre began to develop its programme in light of its new-found independent status. The roster roster of weekly workshops remained at the heart of QPAC's operations, alongside theatre performances, exhibitions and special events. As the Centre moved towards the next stage of its operations, financial support was generously given by Aylesbury Vale District Council (now Buckinghamshire Council) and the Hardings Charitable Trust.
The Centre's current Artistic Director, Sarah Lewis, joined Queens Park in 2002 following the appointment of Peter Cooper as Chairman of QPAC in 2001, a position be holds to this day. With no security of tenure on the site (and with the housing development which had been established on the rest of the former Queens Park School site looking to expand) an ambitious fundraising campaign was launched in 2006 to buy the freehold to the venue. By the deadline in 2009, £325,000 had been raised to purchase the land and safeguard the Centre's long-term future.
2010-2012 - Refurbishment
Over the next few years, funding in excess of £200,000 was secured for the Stage 1 of the Centre's Refurbishment Project. This included structural repairs and improvements to the external façade of the building to ensure that it was watertight and energy efficient. There were extensive repairs made to the roof, windows, pebble-dashing, drains, guttering and chimneys. In addition, replacement external signage, a new integrated box office system and website, new logo, redesigned brochure and refurbished theatre seating were all put in place.
The Centre's activities continued to develop, too. After a period of absence both the annual Art & Craft Fair and ever-popular Queens Park Pantomime returned to the Centre; both have become lynch-pins of the Queens Park programme, attracting new artists and audiences to the venue whilst providing essential funds which support the Centre throughout the year.
2013-present - Arts For All
The last few years have been truly transformative for QPAC, both in terms of its internal activities as well as its work in the wider local community.
Stage 2 of the Refurbishment Project included repairs and improvements to the inside of the building, including the transformation of the former Annexe space into a purpose-built dance studio in 2017. Funding is now being sought to re-develop the under-utilised part of the site, which will further enhance and extend the Centre's creative opportunities. The ongoing Refurbishment Project is vital to ensure that the building's fabric and facilities reflect the quality of the activities taking place within its walls.
The Centre's roster of weekly workshops continues to expand, with more than 70 classes now running during term time. In addition, a packed programme of special one-off workshops and short-courses have proved enduringly popular, as have the regular school holiday classes for children. Increased opportunities for hirers have brought new partnerships and creative collaborations - including the welcome addition of the Susan Diane School of Dance, who have worked in partnership with QPAC since 2013. Events such as the May Maker's Fair and Pop-up Christmas Shop have quickly become mainstays of the programme.
In 2013 the WanderHouse Outreach Project was launched, led by interdisciplinary artist Pippa North. After a period of research and development at the Centre funded by the Arts Council of England, the WanderHouse began its creative journey to all manner of community settings in the local area, working with thousands of people to provide access to high-quality arts tuition and sustainable resources, whilst promoting the ethos and activities taking place at Queens Park.
Another outreach project, titled 'Finding the Joy in Making' and also led by Pippa North, launched in 2020. This was funded by the Rothschild Foundation and saw the Centre once again extend its creative reach into the community. Meanwhile, closer to home, QPAC had become a familiar presence at a wide array of town centre events. The Centre has provided free craft activities and live performances at events such as Aylesbury Town Council's Soapbox Derby, Aylesbury-on-Sea and Parklife Weekend, Buckinghamshire Council's WhizzFizzFest and the Aylesbury Town Centre Partnership's Santa Parade.
Unbound Theatre - the Centre's in-house production company - was established in 2014. Led by writer/director Dario Knight, Unbound have worked on dozens of projects both at the Limelight Theatre and at the aforementioned local events, performing high-quality productions for thousands of people each year. In addition to their creative input into the annual Queens Park Pantomime, Unbound have also taken shows on tour across the country.
Volunteers remain an essential part of the Centre, with more than 100 members of the local community donating their time and talents to tutor workshops, run the Coffee Bar and Limelight Bar, welcome people at reception, attend public events on behalf of the Centre, assist with administration and marketing, and to write, direct, design and perform theatrical performances.
The Centre is fortunate to receive some financial support from Buckinghamshire Council and the Hardings Charitable Trust in the form of much-needed annual core funding, although around 90% of QPAC's income is self-generated through workshop fees and ticket sales.
In 2020, when the COVID-19 outbreak meant QPAC was required to temporarily close its site to the public, the Centre developed an ambitious online programme, including a wide variety of workshops run via Zoom. Its 'Live Creatively' campaign inspired and shared people's creative projects undertaken during lockdown, and also saw the production of a prolific amount of audio and video content for audiences.
As a charity with a huge breadth of programming on offer and a continued commitment to provide affordable arts for all, Queens Park Arts Centre remains the creative and cultural hub of Aylesbury, and a much-valued community resource.
“What a rare and special thing places like QPC are.”
Malcolm Thackwray (1943-2015)