Bowing out after 10 years at The Spring

Amanda O'Reilly Director of The Spring Arts and Heritage Centre in Havant who leaves this Friday.''Picture: Paul Jacobs (123241-4)
Amanda O'Reilly Director of The Spring Arts and Heritage Centre in Havant who leaves this Friday.''Picture: Paul Jacobs (123241-4)
Dr John Steadman, archivist of Portsmouth History Centre based at Portsmouth Central Library     Picture:  Malcolm Wells

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After a decade at the helm of a popular arts theatre, Amanda O’Reilly is standing down. She talks to JEFF TRAVIS about her succcess over the years.

AS we sit chatting in a light and airy cafe, surrounded by artwork and exhibits, Amanda O’Reilly is almost like an excited schoolgirl.

She talks of The Spring in Havant with unfettered excitement, joy and passion.

It’s hard to believe this kind of enthusiasm would be possible after 10 years as director.

But The Spring Arts and Heritage Centre has been something of a love affair for this former dancer.

The 41-year-old, who lives in Southsea with her husband David and two spaniels, says: ‘I only planned to be here four years – that was my masterplan when I arrived.

‘Then I fell in love with the place.

‘The 10 years has flown by.’

Amanda has been instrumental in turning Havant’s old town hall into a thriving arts centre and museum, a hub for all talents and interests, young or old, rich or poor.

The facts speak for themselves.

When she started, turnover was about £200,000. Last year it was £560,000.

In a decade the number of volunteers has gone up from 28 to 89.

Footfall has increased with 120,000 people every year walking through the doors of The Spring – which derives its name from Havant’s water heritage.

But sometimes one has to drag yourself away from a job when you are on top.

Amanda is leaving for pastures new, to run three theatres and a cinema in Worthing.

She explains: ‘I think that running a venue, you can only be there so long before there’s a danger of you getting stale – and I’m not there yet.

‘I am still excited by it and I think it’s best to leave when you are still firing on all cylinders.

‘You need to leave before you run out of ideas.’

One of Amanda’s biggest success stories was convincing the authorities she and her team could run a museum.

Havant Museum was under threat of closure four years ago, but Amanda spearheaded a community-wide campaign to save it.

The Spring became the first museum and arts centre collaboration in the country.

Quite an achievement for a former dancer, who retired after getting a bad hip.

Amanda says: ‘It is a real hub for this community and is a place people come to spend their leisure time.

‘It’s always packed with people having a lovely time – and that’s our job, to make people have a good time and have a little bit of reprieve from their serious jobs and the pressures of life.’

During her time, Amanda has not been the kind of manager to sit in her office and fire off emails to her staff.

No task is too menial for this director, who has spent the last five years renovating a post office in Southsea into her home.

Amanda laughs as we talk about the opening ceremony of Havant’s new museum in 2009.

‘Half an hour before the press and guests arrived to cut the ribbon, I was still in overalls painting,’ she says.

‘About 15 minutes before everyone arrived, I had to run upstairs and put on my posh frock and silver shoes.

‘I was rubbing a little bit of paint off my arm as I was doing my speech.

‘That’s one of the great things about The Spring – everyone is willing to get involved and get their hands dirty. With the power of determination, we make things happen.’

The Spring attracts big names in music such as Seth Lakeman, Guy Davis, Paul Young and stand-up comedians Lucy Porter and Jo Caulfield.

A visit by naturalist Chris Packham a few years ago sticks out in Amanda’s mind.

She says: ‘There had been torrential rain.

‘We had artwork up and all of a sudden water came pouring through the ceiling just as we had a full audience here, so I had to take the artwork off the wall really quickly.

‘Then I got on my desk and climbed out of the window. As I climbed out of the window I managed to rip the behind out of my trousers.

‘I was up there with my broom in my duty manager outfit sweeping all the leaves away to unblock the drain.

‘Then I had to come back down with a hand covering the hole in my trousers, go to the stage and introduce Chris Packham.

‘There are some nights when you have just have to roll with whatever is happening!’

Amanda admitts that money has got tighter in the arts community, but says her team can make a penny go a long way.

Amanda says she will be leaving The Spring with a heavy heart – but knows she is leaving it in a good place for the new director.

She says: ‘I think an arts centre really can become the heart of a community.

‘It’s a place where you can meet people who are different to you.

‘We tend to go places where people are similar to us.

‘Here we can have a young mums meeting learning how to make nutritious meals, older ladies meeting to do a knitting group and then we can have a rock band in the recording studio.

‘It’s about those different sections of community getting to know each other and some of the stereotypes drop away.’

Roger Harrison, chairman of The Spring, adds: ‘We thought we were in quite a good place 10 years ago, but where Amanda has brought us to is a great tribute to her.’

The Spring is named after the 24 springs in Havant.

In 1978 the old town hall opened as Havant Arts Centre.

In 1979 Moorlands, a former private house, opened next door as Havant Museum.

The old town hall was commissioned by the architect Richard Drew.

In the Second World War, the Wrens were barracked at Moorlands.

A seance was held last year and experts said there was a ghost in the museum. No-one has seen it yet.

For the Diamond Jubilee there was an exhibition of 200 pieces of toast with the Queen’s face on them.

The Spring is home to a recording studio called Music Fusion.

The Sadler gallery is named after Amanda’s predecessor Paul Sadler, who was at the arts centre for 19 years.

The museum includes a hoard of Bronze Age spearheads found on Hayling Island and dated to 1150BC to 800 BC.