Artswork Essex came into being in the late 1980s as part of an ambitious initiative by the then southern television station TVS.

Eleven education authorities across the south of England took part in the early projects, which were splendidly funded by BT and administered from a special unit within TVS. Each authority appointed a county co-ordinator to oversee the county based arts programmes. The Essex development, with Jeff Merrifield as co-ordinator, took the form of a series of specific arts projects in various local areas of Essex, which were then brought together in large-scale youth arts festivals, where a variety of art forms were mixed and matched and the keyword was participation. Projects ranged from a commissioned jazz adaptation of the 1812 Overture to a large scale exhibition of artwork and poetry inspired by the wide variety of doors to be found in and around Harwich. The main feature of most of these Essex initiatives was the way they brought professional arts practitioners into working relationships with young people.

The first chairman of Artswork was Ken Robinson, an inspirational innovator in arts education. Now Sir Ken Robinson, he lives in Los Angeles and has become a leading authority on the educational benefits of the arts. Here he is talking at a US convention about the lack of recognition of active arts within the current school curriculums: Do schools kill creativity? - listen here.

The BT funding of these eleven authority projects lasted for some five years and these were great years for youth arts. However, all good things come to an end sometime and when BT moved off to fund other initiatives instead, Artswork struggled to find an equivalent funder. Despite some courageous efforts, Artswork never did attract so abundant a funding source and gradually became more associated with Southern Arts. This naturally excluded Essex, which was the only Eastern region authority that formed part of the original consortium.

It was then that Artswork Essex was born under the umbrella of Essex County Council Arts Development. With much more limited funding, arts projects of a more modest order were undertaken, but with the same enthusiasm of the larger projects from the early days. In 1996 Artswork Essex initiated the Essex Arts Award, a certificate based scheme to recognise young people's involvement in the arts. Since 2002 Helen Mirren has been patron of the Essex Arts Award and Artswork Essex. Over nearly two decades Artswork Essex has either initiated and/or developed the following projects:

  • The Brentwood Youth Arts Spectacular
  • The Essex Arts Circus Project
  • VideoVan Film Projects
  • The Thurrock Stadium Arts Spectacular
  • Colchester Castle Arts Gathering
  • The Essex Rock School
  • The Make It Happen Project
  • The Essex Arts Circus
  • An international postcard art wall project
  • The Essex Arts Award
  • Duke Ellington Centenary Concert
  • Essex Jazz Summer School
  • Keep it live - Essex County Battle of the Bands

Artswork Essex has worked in partnership with:

  • Essex County Council Youth Service
  • District and Borough Councils of Braintree, Brentwood, Castle Point, Chelmsford, Colchester , Epping, Harlow, Rochford, Southend, Thurrock and Uttlesford
  • The Brentwood Youth Arts Partnership
  • Theatre Resource
  • First Light - the UK Film Council's Young Filmmakers Project
  • The Eastern Orchestral Board (with Brentwood Borough Council and the Royal Pilharmonic Orchestra)
  • Brentwood Theatre, Palace Theatre, Thameside Theatre, Towngate Theatre

In 2005 Artswork Essex became an independent, non-profit-making limited company and applied for charitable status. Jeff Merrifield continued as director, supported by a committe of trustees, until he left the Essex Youth Service in 2008 to live on the Shetland Isles. For several years Dame Helen Mirren has acted as patron of the major Artswork Essex project - the Essex Arts Awards - we are most grateful for her continuing endorsement. The sole remaining purpose of Artswork Essex is to deliver the Essex Arts Award, which is now administrated from County Hall.

Many thanks to all those artists and young people who have contributed to Artswork Essex over 20 years.

Open Essex Arts Award pages