WAC Arts and Hampstead Town Hall

Posted on 15/3/2020

Members may recall that over the years Belsize Residents’ Association made a number of donations to the WAC Arts organisation, based in the old Hampstead Town Hall on Haverstock Hill. In 2019 BelSoc continued this with a further donation of £200. For members unaware of the organisation’s work, we thought some account of its history and activities might be welcome, particularly in view of its intention to carry out some building work within the Town Hall. As you may know, the Town Hall is a Grade II listed building. BelSoc now has as one of its charitable objectives to promote high standards of architecture, conservation, planning, design and use of buildings in Belsize Ward, and to promote the protection, development and improvement of features of historic interest in the area. So it will be part of our responsibility to take an interest if significant changes of this kind are planned.

WAC Arts is a charity that has been in existence for forty years and provides access to the performing arts for the young, the disabled and the disadvantaged. It also provides support and services to other charities and organisations to help them promote their own effectiveness, offering professional advice, training, event and conference management and accommodation. It began life in a community hall and then quickly moved to the Inter-Action site in Kentish Town, where access to studios and a large hall afforded opportunities to increase its intake of young people and extend the range of programmes on offer at weekends. Twenty years later and with a full weekend of activity for 5-26 year olds, it found itself to have outgrown the Inter-Action space and in 2000 secured the Old Town Hall, which was about to be turned into a commercial site, as its new home.

At the start of its 40th birthday year WAC Arts was awarded a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, allowing it to launch a Connecting Communities Project enabling its young people, building partners and the wider community in Camden to explore the organisation’s abundant participatory artistic heritage. It identifies particularly with the Town Hall’s own occasionally radical history. An illustration of this came in 1959 when David Pitt was chosen a Labour candidate for Hampstead, becoming the first person of African descent to stand for Parliament. After his selection he gave a speech on the steps of the Town Hall which a mob tried to disrupt, the disturbance eventually turning into a riot. He went on to lose the election, but later founded the Campaign against Racial Discrimination and became a member of the House of Lords in 1975.

As custodian of the Town Hall WAC Arts is responsible for the maintenance and management of the building and grounds. In March last year it appointed Ash Sakula architects as partners to help it restore some of the Hall’s original features (including restoration of the “imperial staircase” and carry out a wide-ranging refurbishment to transform what is already a considerable community asset for wider public benefit. One of the proposed changes involves a new large cafe open to all, spilling into the central staircase area and expanding onto the Hall’s terrace space, allowing it to connect with a greater number and range of people, supporting the organisation’s ambition to develop its inter-generational appeal. The intention is that the new spaces will allow year-round, community-led activities helping to reduce isolation and foster social cohesion among people of all ages. WAC Arts also hopes that improving the accessibility of the building will help increase the number of people able to benefit from its programmes, for example young people with special education needs and disabilities.

Costs for the building work are in the region of £3.2 million. More Information on the plans, including  how to donate, can be found at www.wacarts.co.uk/homepage/inside-out-wac-arts