On Thursday 20th October 2022 the Old Court House on Bangor’s seafront comes back to life, reborn as a music venue and arts space under the management of the Open House Festival.
Built originally as a bank in 1966, it became Bangor’s Magistrate’s Court from 1952 until it closed its doors in 2013. After seven years of fundraising and campaigning, Open House have been able to not only secure the building but to turn it into a state-of-the art venue, complete with bars and gallery space.
Bigger names are on the horizon such as Robyn Hitchcock and Camille O’Sullivan but Thursday’s opening event features two local bands The Florentinas (Bangor) and Lemon Shoelace (Belfast).
We had the chance to meet up with Kieran Gilmore (Open House Director) and Rachael Campbell-Palmer (Court House Director) before the doors opened and chat about Open House and the role of Court House as a new, permanent venue for the organisation.
Kieran, as one of the founders of Open House, how has the change from a festival to a year-round undertaking worked out?
Kieran: It is, and will be, a big cultural change, going from the cyclical operations of a summer festival and fundraising. We do maybe a dozen or shows a year in Belfast in the Black Box, the Limelight and The Empire and they’re very different to festival shows; they’re a lot easier since we book the venue and book the band.
The change-over has been maybe the busiest three or four months of my professional life but it’s been very exciting and it’s such a relief to have Rachael at the helm. Within three weeks of being here she has been showing us up and showing us how to do it.
Rachael, you previously managed Belfast’s Black Box, one of the more established venues for music and the arts in Belfast– what’s different about taking on a completely new venue that is just starting out?
Rachael: It’s a big difference and a challenge. It was great having the learning and experience behind me with The Black Box. With that knowledge I wanted to hit the ground running and get as many things right from the start as I could as well as pre-empting what might be needed a few months down the line.
What does it mean to Open House to have your own permanent venue in Bangor?
Kieran: It’s why we spent seven years trying to make this happen. I keep saying “town” but Bangor is now a city and it desperately needs this and I think we demonstrated that through the festival in the last nine or ten years.
There is a huge appetite for what we want to do in here and that’s definitely helped make it happen and given us and our funders impetus for a better arts, culture and music infrastructure in Bangor.
This isn’t just a music venue – what other activities and events will the Court House be offering?
Rachael: There’s a very wide range of arts programming; there’s music of course but there will be a regular film club and we have a lot of comedy events coming up. I think the range of events will appeal to a wider audience and will also provide opportunities for some interesting collaborations and cross-platform type events as well.
We’re trying not to think of things as being very segregated – not only music, not only comedy – there would nice and natural interactions between different art forms which is where some of the really exciting stuff happens.
How important is it to engage the local community with this project?
Kieran: We are the community; I live here, Alison(co-founder of Open House) lives here, my two kids have grown up here. I know everyone who is working on the Court House by first name; we all drink in the same pub and have shared tastes in music. But more importantly we all want Bangor to be better than it has been during the last ten or fifteen years.
There’s no doubt Bangor has been on its knees but it’s great to hear people talking it up again; that’s our goal – to get people talking it up rather than putting it down because it’s a great place. We’re just the people who have found ourselves in the position to open this venue and help with the running of it.
Rachael: I’ve come here from a very community-engaged venue and just to see the opportunities and possibilities that can come out of and how much that type of space is then valued and loved; people feel personally connected and attached to them and it’s those type of grass-root venues that are the very soul of any town or city. That’s what we are aiming for with The Court House.
The Open House festival has always balanced booking big, established acts whilst still championing local musicians and bands; you are opening with two local acts – how important is that balance between local and national/international?
Kieran: Just as important now as it was then. Maybe it’s a bit more challenging now that we have our own venue. We have to sell tickets – we need people coming through the door and we need to them to keep coming, not just for the honeymoon period but for the next two, five or ten years. Bangor is renowned for its music – it genuinely has a rich musical history and also with art, particularly fine art. Those people are part of the fabric already – we hope that they will come and play or maybe even work here.
Rachael: It was an intentional programming decision that our first event involved two young local bands (Lemonade Shoelace and The Florentinas). It’s important that the bands and their fans know that this place is for them.
Kieran: We have the likes of Ken Haddock playing. Ken plays every week at Jenny Watts and has done for years but he’ll be here playing to a hundred people who have bought tickets because they love Ken and the fact that he is the type of artist that will play anywhere. We’ve got some great local comedians playing as well. We want to progress other areas as well such as visual art; we have a dedicated gallery space upstairs primarily for showing exhibitions and space for creative businesses. We’re looking at partnering with the Clandeboye Estate to set up an arts award.
Kieran, as Festival Director what has been your favourite gig over the lifetime of Open House? Can you pick one?
Kieran: Yep – putting on Wilco in Belfast in 2010 and to sell 2000 tickets. It was great achievement. It was the first time we had dealt with a proper, professional touring band with a tour bus and lots of ancillary vehicles and trailers. They are a five-piece band but they had about twenty-four support people with them. We’d never dealt with anything on that scale before – it was a whole different ball game.
Last question; what would your fantasy booking for the Court House be?
Rachael: That’s a hard question; but if nobody was off limits someone like Jenny Hval or Angel Olsen. Kieran could probably make that happen!
Kieran: For this venue – The Sex Pistols with Glen Matlock on bass. It’ll never happen but at least we had John Lydon here.
Rachael: We are trying to incubate artists and bands – give them their first shows but you’re also getting to see higher profile acts in a really intimate setting.
A new venue is always a welcome thing and a dedicated music venue in Bangor with the backing of Open House is surely one to watch and the programme is already shaping up well. A mix of music, comedy, arts and film and the opportunity to showcase local bands bodes well for the Court House’s future.
The venue is off to a great start with a good portion of their events in 2022 already sold out including the launch event featuring the Florentinas and Lemonade Shoelace. You can view the whole programme, buy tickets and find out further information on the venue on the Court House Bangor website.