£31m Woolwich Works opening pushed back to spring as jazz orchestra signs up

Woolwich Works under construction
Woolwich Works had been due to open this autumn

Woolwich’s £31m arts centre will now open next spring following delays caused by the coronavirus, it was confirmed this morning – and will have the National Youth Jazz Orchestra as a tenant.

The orchestra joins immersive theatre company Punchdrunk, the Chineke! orchestra, dance company Protein and the Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair in Woolwich Works, which is based in the Royal Arsenal and funded by Greenwich Council.

It will include a performance venue that can accommodate up to 1,800 people, outdoor performance space and five studios which can also be used for shows and rehearsals.

Woolwich Works, which was originally due to launch this autumn, has also launched its own website today, woolwich.works.

Roger Wilson, the head of professional development at the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, said: “I grew up in Woolwich back in the day when the area brought with it a lot of challenges. I’m under no illusion that many of these challenges are still present today and I want NYJO and Woolwich Works to provide meaningful opportunities for the local community. Woolwich is coming into the national focus and I’m really looking forward to seeing the area become the hub of arts activity. It’s very exciting to be back.”

The chair of the independent trust that will run Woolwich Works, Valerie Vaughan-Dick, said: “A partnership between Woolwich Works and the National Youth Jazz Orchestra is an exciting prospect for us to be able to support young musicians. We are honoured to be the new home for the next generation of jazz artists.”

James Heaton, the project’s chief executive, added: “Some people may wonder whether now’s the right time to be launching a new cultural hub, given everything that’s going on in the world. Certainly, the context in which we’re doing so is very different to that we’d expected – and a huge amount of thought, soul-searching, and analysis has gone into reviewing our plans for Woolwich Works and re-evaluating our role post Covid-19.

“But ultimately, we are founded on the power of the arts and culture to transform lives: to inspire people to imagine, create and innovate; to build confidence, enable communication and drive collaboration; to empower and make change; and to create jobs and act as a catalyst for economic regeneration.”

Woolwich Works render
One of the spaces is inside a former firework factory

Councillors have expressed worries about the cost of the creative district – which has also displaced Greenwich’s local history archives to a warehouse in Charlton, upsetting its users.

But Greenwich’s assistant chief executive Katrina Delaney told a meeting earlier this month that while the arts sector was “clearly very nervous about what the future holds”, there had been a change in the business plan for Woolwich Works to make it into an organisation that would programme its own performances, rather than one hired out by other organisations.

“There is a change in the business plan from being a house that puts on other performances to one that will actually schedule work, so there is much more emphasis on live performance rather than rehearsal space. And the upshot of so many weddings being cancelled is that there is a relationship between Woolwich Works and well-known wedding venues in London to take some of the overflow weddings in anticipation of a bumper year next year.

“We have massive spaces, so social distancing will be possible in the spaces that we have there. The trust is working with us in how to turn the current uncertain period into a bit of an opportunity.”

Greenwich Council’s cabinet member for culture, Adel Khaireh, said the venue would “become a major employer providing local jobs, education opportunities and attracting investment to the area too. It will be fantastic to have London’s most exciting new arts destination on our doorstep when it launches next spring, providing access to an abundance of arts and cultural opportunities for our residents and beyond.”

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