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Oh! Arts: a history

Today Oxford House is a lively home for the creative arts, boasting a theatre, dance studio and gallery as part of its facilities, but this wasn’t always the case. A plaque in Oxford House’s reception area commemorates the opening of the oh!art centre by the then Chair of Oxford House, Michael Haines, which took place 14 years ago today, on 24 November 2003. This was a huge milestone in the history of Oxford House, enabling the community centre to become a hub for professional as well as community arts.

The Oh! Arts centre was built with the aim of bringing professional artwork into Oxford House’s community context, in order to both raise the bar for community arts and to get professional artists to engage with Oxford House’s work. The arts centre was also intended to facilitate collaboration between different art forms and cultural groups. An annual theme was set to guide each year’s arts programming, such as ‘Home’ in 2003 and ‘Identity’ in 2004, with highlights from 2004 including an art exhibition on Black History and Identity, and ‘Mothers’, a Mother’s Day exhibition curated by Harry Pye.

The arts centre was the culmination of 6 years of hard work which began in 1997, when Oxford House first began to investigate how the large hall at the rear of the building could be redeveloped as a performing arts venue. In 1999, after several phases of applications, Oxford House received £1 million from the Arts Council to build the new arts facilities. The old Holland Hall was turned into the current theatre, and what used to be the gymnasium was cut in two to form the Scott Room and the basement gallery. The most imaginative planning decision was to turn the open-air area at the back of Oxford House into what is now the building’s main entrance and gallery space, with the addition of a glass roof.

As well as developing physical spaces for the arts, Oxford House also began to develop its arts team and its relationships with new and old users of the arts spaces. By bringing new staff members on board, including an Artistic Director, Pippa Bailey, and a full-time arts administrator, Claire Teasdale, Oxford House began the task of managing the new arts centre and planning its opening in 2003. The launch season featured a variety of arts activities and attracted over 1500 people, including long-standing Oxford House visitors as well as new audiences from the local area and all over London.

In 2016, Oxford House continues to be a home for the visual and performing arts, from weekly dance classes to exhibitions and theatre productions by professional and emerging artists.

Text: Azura Farid

1.    Oxford House under construction. Oxford House collection.
2.    Oh! Art centre plaque. Eva Smininova. Oxford House.
3.    Scott Room. Oxford House collection.
4.    Basement gallery. Oxford House collection.
5.    Artistic Director Pippa Bailey. Oxford House collection.