In 1833 the Fox family, a prominent Quaker shipping family of Falmouth, founded the Cornwall Polytechnic Society, to promote the ideas and inventions of the workers in their Perran Foundry. This was the first use of the word ‘Polytechnic’ (meaning “of many arts and techniques”) in Britain. In 1835 King William IV bestowed Royal Patronage on the Society.
In the same year the Polytechnic Hall was built, at 24 Church Street, being originally used for “objects connected with the sciences, arts and literature”, but not for theatrical purposes. This restriction was removed in 1889 to permit “dramatic plays”.
The Society played a prominent role in industrial development in the 19th century, being instrumental in the development of the “man engine” in mines, drilling machinery, mine ventilation, the health and welfare of fishermen and miners – and explosives. In 1865 the Hall was damaged by a demonstration of Nobel’s gun cotton and nitro-glycerine.
The Society was instrumental in developing the art of photography, the new skill being demonstrated at the Society’s Annual Exhibition in 1843. In 1910 the Society was granted its first “cinematographic licence” – possibly the first in Cornwall. In 1954 the Society formed a separate Committee to encourage presentation of the performing arts which came to be known as Falmouth Arts.
Falmouth Arts Committee was formed with its own constitution, as an unincorporated association, in 1984, in association with the Society. It changed its name from Falmouth Arts Centre Committee to Falmouth Arts in 1995.
In 2000 Falmouth Arts was merged legally with the Society through the incorporation of The Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society Ltd, a company limited by guarantee (registered number 3909555) and a registered charity (number 1081199). The RCPS Ltd decided to adopt the trading name of Falmouth Arts Centre.
In the same year the original charity, The Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society (registered number 251650), amended its constitution as an unincorporated association whereby, as a result, its membership now consists of the Management Committee for the time being of the RCPS Ltd. The Management Committee of the RCPS Ltd is elected by the members of the RCPS Ltd. Currently there are approximately 400 members of the RCPS Ltd.
Today Falmouth Arts Centre presents a lively and diverse programme embracing both the performing and the visual arts. Its cinema programme attracts significant audiences, as do a range of live events including theatre, music, dance and a variety of talks and lectures. Its two small street-front galleries and its large main gallery host a varied and busy programme of art exhibitions, attracting significant numbers of visitors. These cater for both amateur and professional artists, and in recent years include regular exhibitions by students of the University College Falmouth, which have proved particularly successful.
The Society owns a number of collections. Foremost amongst these is an internationally significant collection of works by the Newlyn School artist Henry Scott Tuke, RA, RWS, (1858-1929) who lived most of his life in Falmouth. Works from this collection are frequently on loan for exhibition elsewhere in this country and abroad. A new programme of conservation and cataloguing has recently been established, with substantial funding now starting to be obtained and further bids being pursued from a variety of sources. Emergency conservation measures are due to commence during 2005 in a three year work programme leading to more regular and extensive public exhibition of the collection in the artist’s home town, in the very building, indeed, where Tuke’s election as an Associate RA was celebrated.
The Poly’s Tuke Collections form the largest single body of the artist’s work in a public collection anywhere in the UK. Our ambition is, in the long term, to establish a public exhibition gallery dedicated to showing Tuke’s work, not only the paintings, drawings and sketches in our own collections, but selections of those works alongside pieces from other public and private collections. One aim is to compare and contrast Tuke’s works with those of other artists in the Newlyn (and Falmouth) Schools, and, as with the Here Comes the Sun exhibition held in our Oliver Price Library in 2003, contrasting with the work of today’s generation of contemporary landscape and figurative painters and other artists living and working in Cornwall today.
In addition the Society owns a large, diverse collection of photographs, maps and other articles associated with the history of Falmouth and surrounding areas over the past 250 years. A selection of these items is currently on loan to the new National Maritime Museum Cornwall in Falmouth. These collections are managed on behalf of the Society by its Local History and Research Group.
The scale of public subsidy to the Falmouth Arts Centre is surprisingly small. With more than 95% of its turnover coming from earned income, Falmouth’s is a rarity amongst Arts Centres anywhere in the UK in attracting sufficient regular audiences to operate on a near commercial basis.
In addition the Society has been enormously assisted by legacies and donations, and, in 2003, the sale of the Boulton-Watt papers enabled the establishment of a designated investment fund to help subsidise the Arts Centre. Over the years such bequests have made possible a number of vital improvements and renovations.
In August 2004 the theatre auditorium was modernised, re-raked with new seating and increased legroom, the walls were repainted and new carpets were laid, offering our customers a luxurious standard of comfort befitting the 21st century.
In 2006 further changes are planned, with major alterations, refurbishments and improvements to the Poly’s facilities and services that will transform the building and the organization.