Since 2011 Grizedale Arts has been working on the renovation and development of the Coniston Institute, the local village hall in Coniston, where our office moved in 2016.
Originally established as a Mechanics' Institute in the mid 1800's, there was a later rebuilding initiated and overseen by nearby resident, the polymath John Ruskin and his local associates in 1878.
The new building was an early model for the modern day arts centre, built for the then industrial mining village of Coniston. There were facilities such as a bathhouse, kitchen, library, reading room, billiard room, smoking room, artists studios, theatre, extensive collection of minerals, fossils, pictures, antiquities, archaeology and stuffed animals donated by Ruskin and Collingwood. It provided the education of the time for everyman. The Mechanics Institute model was designed to give the working classes a fuller and richer life, whilst being instrumental in the education of the workforce in the emerging technologies, as well as keeping them out of the pub.
The Coniston Institute (which evolved out of the old Mechanics Institute) was an early model for the modern day arts centre, with facilities such as bathhouse, kitchen, library reading room, billiard room, smoking room, artists studios, theatre and collections of minerals, fossils, pictures, antiquities, archaeology and stuffed animals. It was a particularly directed version of the Mechanics Institutes that spread across Britain, Canada and the US in the 19th century. These Institutes were designed to give the working classes a fuller and richer life, whilst instrumentally educating the workforce in the emerging technologies and keeping them out of the pub.
Such a density of cultural resources in this small place spawned a wealth of creative potential fulfilled in the form of a modest woodcarving industry, a less modest lace industry and a line of copper work that evolved with a push from Canon Rawnsley into the more famous Keswick School of Industrial Arts.
One must also appreciate that the Institute sat within a wider socio-cultural context that created the Lake District as a counter to the Industrial Revolution, not just as one of the world’s first ‘green’ tourist destinations but also a hotbed of intellectual life.
Over time, the Institute offered a brilliant village resource with its varied facilities, its rich history and remarkable collection of Ruskin-associated material donated variously by Ruskin, his friends and by local villagers. Much of this is now archived and displayed in the Ruskin Museum attached to the Institute. However, by 2011, the Coniston Institute was no longer operating as an education and social centre in the same way, and had been vastly underused for a long time, gradually sinking into state of neglect and disrepair.
At the request of the Institute committee, we have helped develop the building in new ways, beginning a series of projects with the aim of re-instating the Institute as model for cultural and educational development.
The renovation undertaken with a stalwart group of village volunteers included:
- The restoration and repainting of the main hall and stage
- The installation of a new kitchen
- A new self-service library (with support from Cumbria County Council) designed by Liam Gillick
- An honesty shop designed by An Endless Supply selling produce from the village, Lawson Park and the Institute's various groups
- The restoration of the Reading Room for small meetings, dinners, presentations and recreational amusements.
The project also saw Grizedale Arts' then Programme Manager, Maria Benjamin voted in as the live-in caretaker for the site, with an oddly-shaped house in which each room connects to the different facilities in the Institute.
Since the redevelopment began, the Institute has been seeing a steady increase in use, toward the goal, ultimately, of becoming a dynamic centre of education, inspiration and recreation for the village once again.
The following is an excerpt from one of the curios we found along the way, and is apposite to the current development - a letter drafted To the Public of Coniston proposed by the Institute Committee, June 1890:
The committee of the above Institute have in contemplation a scheme for increasing it's usefulness. The present reading room is small & inconvenient. […] It is therefore proposed to provide a new room to be used exclusively as a Reading Room & Library. But there are many young men in the place to whom a Reading Room alone presents little or no attractions. There is in Coniston a special want of any place to which they can resort for harmless amusement during the winter evenings. The consequences of such a want are well known. They pick up evil companions & acquire all sorts of bad habits, & thus many a youth becomes a source of grief to his friends & a nuisance to others, who but for the want of such a resort might have turned out steady & respectable. It must therefore be of interest to all that such a place should be provided, & it is therefore intended to add Recreation Rooms in which harmless amusements could be engaged in. […] It is also believed that if suitable accommodation were available, that an interesting & attractive museum could be eventually organised in connection with the institute. […] Such a place, apart from the educational benefits it would confer on the inhabitants, would be an additional attraction to tourists. It is well known that many of the latter find Coniston a dull place on a wet day, & take the first opportunity of getting out of it, to the benefit of other places in the district where there are more indoor attractions. […] It is earnestly hoped for that the inhabitants of Coniston will respond heartily to the appeal, that they will prove that the character for apathy & indifference to such matters (which they rightly or wrongly seem to have acquired) is not deserved, & show by being willing to help themselves that they are worthy of being helped by others.
The letter was never sent, but with luck the redevelopment will have a similar effect, disseminating the idea that Coniston can be an involving, creative and dynamic community based on good morals.