As you enter The Bank in Eye, if it isn’t a live art class grabbing your attention, it’s the smell and sound of people enjoying coffee among a backdrop of all varieties of art that does.
Not only showcasing local talent, the venue has hosted works from all around Europe, and as far as Japan and Asia in its regularly changing art exhibitions.
From holding art and creative writing classes, a recording studio aptly named ‘The Vault’ downstairs at the venue, from treatments and therapies and a café, it is more than simply an art gallery.
It is run by Eyes Open CIC, a not-for-profit Community Interest Company.
It marks quite a turnaround for the Grade II listed building in Castle Street.
Closed in 2007, the premises which hosted the former HSBC branch, was boarded up. But a vision for a community arts centre and coffee house, the brainchild of a number of artists, was set out in September 2012, and in April of the following year, the vision had become a reality.
It is the work of a team of up to 25 volunteers and community spirit that has transformed the former bank, according to chairman of the project Rebecca Lyne, speaking ahead of the first anniversary of its opening.
Ms Lyne herself is an artist, specialising in figurative sculpture, drawing and painting, and is one half of Parr and Lyne, with Christopher Parr, as collaborative sculptors.
“It is entirely to do with the volunteers and people who run this,” she explained.
“There is a huge team of volunteers and people who come in and make this happen. I might sit there and say ‘why don’t we do this?’ but without them, this wouldn’t happen.
“I was working just across the road and spent a lot of time looking at these boarded up windows with this idea in mind, and these ideas about community cohesion and the benefit that arts can bring.
“Everybody used to meet in here and chat at the counter and it was a community building. “We really wanted it to stay a community building and that was really important.
“It was really September 2012 that we started looking at the building and seeing whether it was a viable possibility with negotiation with the landlord because it just up for sale.
“The landlord was an absolute star – and we managed to persuade him of the idea and he could understand where we were coming from, so he gave us the chance to lease the building.”
Planning permission was granted by Mid Suffolk District Council in March 2013, with the opening day set as April 27.
“We took the lease in March 2013 and we had two months and £25,000 to completely renovate and set up the whole project which is not a lot of money.”
Having been closed for a number of years, it was a race against time to transform the former bank into an arts venue.
“The building was a complete state,” Ms Lyne explained.
There were water leaks, original fittings from when the building was a bank, and parquet flooring covered by a concrete screed.
“It is thanks to about 25 lovely, wonderful volunteers, who all put their time in,” she said. “There were four people in particular who started in one corner of the floor, for three weeks, chipping the concrete screed to the other side. And a fantastic electrician, Leon Spridell.
“When he came and looked at the wiring he said ‘oh my word!’ He was working elsewhere and would come in late at night and work in the evenings to try and help it come together.
“There was a couple of times where we didn’t think we were going to open. We had a deadline because we had rent to pay on May 1, so we had to open at the end of April – there was no two ways about it.
“I think there was a couple of people who came in the day before we opened, looked around, their eyes went slightly wide – and then they grabbed brooms!”
Ms Lyne describes the opening day as “amazing.”
“It was just amazing to sit back and see what everybody had done. That was incredible. People are amazing. It is such a credit to them that they managed to do this.”
To celebrate the landmark, The Bank’s Birthday Party will be held on Friday, April 25, featuring performers such as a choir, songwriters and musicians that have worked at The Bank, to say thank you for the volunteers who have been involved. There will be two plays, from the Eye Professional Theatre over that weekend, as well. The exhibition over the two weeks of the anniversary weekend will be called The Bank Art, with work by all the classes held at the building, a celebration of people who have created writing, paintings or music.
But what does the future hold?
With the lease coming to an end in 2016, there is hope of buying the building outright- with £220,000 needed, as well as another £80,000 for improvements such as a passenger lift and double glazing. A community radio station has been trialled, and a record label will be opening, too.
“We are building. We are very close to being fully self-sustaining. We are getting an amazing amount of support from incredible artists who are seeing the quality of the work that is going up and wanting to be involved. We would not be self-sustaining if it wasn’t for the community. We are completely reliant on their support, without their support this project doesn’t work. We will be starting an appeal to raise money to buy the building, to put in trust for the community from then on. Whether it is used for an arts centre, or whatever happens in the future, it will be here permanently for the community.
“We absolutely have got to grow- but I couldn’t be happier where we are now.”