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Architect Chris Williamson is converting a disused church in his hometown to house his contemporary art collection.


For about five years Chris has been looking to house the Contemporary Art collection assembled over the last 40 years. He started looking for an industrial unit but nothing was quite right and the search stopped during Covid when everything was on hold. Chris signed to volunteer at his local vaccination centres. The experience of the pandemic convinced him that Ilkeston was the right place to achieve his objectives. “London has so many fantastic galleries and we are so fortunate to have those resources, but there’s nothing like this for miles around in the East Midlands. I think it will be really inspirational.” says Chris

On Christmas Day last year he started looking again, opened up his laptop, and the first property that appeared was an amazing redundant Church. Whenever Chris had any spare money he has spent it on art. It goes back to his very first monthly pay cheque in 1980 at Michael Hopkins Architects when  he earned £6,000 pa and spent £50 on an Andrew Holmes screen print. It is still a treasured part of his collection which is really all down to one man -Dr Richard (Dick) Venning Chris’s art teacher at Ilkeston Grammar School.

“Dr Venning  was passionate about all eras of Art but had a special affection for Andy Warhol.” Chris explains “He was a wonderful character and made art come to life, placing it in a historic and social context.” Pop Art  is a common thread throughout the collection. “I’ve tried to take on new influences through people like Susie Allen of Artwise Curators and Isabel de Vasconcellos who introduced me to Saad Quereshi,  Alys Williams of VITRINE, who introduced me to Emii Alrai, and George Mingozzi-Marsh of Contemporary Sculpture Fulmer who introduced me to Leo Fitzmaurice. But I must admit most of the elements of their work that I like are the ones that relate more to the iconography side of pop art.  I’m trying though to be more open minded”

Chris’s collection began to take off when his architectural practice WestonWilliamson+Partners won an International competition out of over 300 entries to design the New England Biolabs Boston HQ in 2001.The owner Don Combs was an avid art collector and was another inspirational character. At that time the Pound/ Dollar exchange rate was nearly 2:1 and there were a number of Warhol works available before prices began to rocket. “I never dreamed I would own a Warhol.My first and most treasured work was a “Moonwalk” because the lunar landing was such an inspirational event when I was 12. I sadly had to sell it when I wasn’t taking a salary at the start of the pandemic”

There will be a permanent exhibition, which explores relationships with religion, with celebrity and with each other. It will invite the visitor to think and examine how we treat each other and why. There will be temporary exhibitions by local and international artists, but fitting the same theme.

Chris also has a collection of religious art including about 50 icons mainly of St Nicholas dating from the Fifteenth Century onwards. They were often painted by unknown artists as acts of religious devotion throughout Eastern Europe and cost a few hundred pounds each. In the gallery they will be displayed at Christmas alongside Andy Warhol’s Santa Claus. Warhol photographed Macy’s Santa on his Polaroid camera, projected the image on the wall, traced the image onto cartridge paper to generate the silkscreen. Warhol produced 250 prints, each one now worth tens of thousands more than any of the handpainted icons. “That seems to to me to say a lot about what we value and will make a great exhibition. Even I haven’t seen them all together before. The Polaroids, the sketch, the prints and the 50 icons. It will make people think. It does me anyway. ” says Chris

Chris limits his spending on art to the same as to charitable giving . Recently his collecting is of young and emerging artists like Jamie Fitzpatrick who challenges the pretention of monumental figures in public sculpture, and Ben Turnbull who uses satire to create politically charged comment, and Svay Sareth who turns real anger at his treatment in Cambodia into beautifully crafted work with humour and humility. “Established artists are expensive and it’s more interesting to spot new talent and see how the artists develop. I think the younger artists are constantly challenging and questioning – as Warhol was – as artists always are. We (WestonWilliamson+Partners) have been fortunate to work with some amazing artists on our projects and they are a constant revelation. I love the fact that everyone likes different things. It would be a boring world if we were all the same.”

The arts centre will open in the summer.  At the moment the decorating is being completed.  The church  was quite austere, so it’s being painted in a palette of muted heritage shades similar to St John at Hampstead, which looks stunning. The AV and lighting takes time but will be state-of-the-art. It is a fantastic space to adapt, even down to the wonderful natural ventilation system – through the walls and roof – which still works. ” I’d like to have an artist working there a year at a time – for visitors to meet and engage with to help take away the mystique of art. They would have an exhibition of work at the end of their tenure. There will also be a Sculpture Park, if that’s not too grand a term. The grounds are not extensive but there is certainly space to do something interesting.”

There will be an education room named after Dick Venning. It is a space to welcome schools and other groups. The Church was designed by local Architect John Higginbottom and completed in 1938. It now has the opportunity to inspire a new generation in its new use. The building itself will be an amazing canvas for artists to express ideas. Chris hopes it will be inspirational “I just hope people will visit. It’s free, has great coffee, so why not?”

Photos show

01Church interior which will be the home to Ilkeston Contemporary Arts Below:

02 03 Russell Young Marilyn Monroe Pink and Black 2016

04 Jamie Fitzpatrick “Prince St. Charming Jjjorge 2021,

05 Svay Sareth “Head and Power” 2018,

06 Ahmed Abdel Fattah “Sufi” 2016,

07 BenTurnbull “Breeding Terrorism” 2020.

07 St John at Hampstead,

08 Fifteen Century St Nicholas Icon,

09 Andy Warhol Santa Claus screen print 1981.

10 Chris Williamson portrait by Dan Fontanelli

Chris Williamson is Chairman at Weston Williamson + Partners,

part of the Egis Group of companies / www.westonwilliamson.com


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