Arnolfini was established in 1961 by Jeremy Rees, Annabel Lawson and John Osborn - above a bookshop on the Triangle in Bristol. Its purpose was to create a place where all the contemporary arts could coexist and interact in order to stimulate creativity, to provoke thought and to give pleasure to a wide range of people.
After brief periods in Queen's Square and W-shed on Bordeaux Quay (now home to Watershed), Arnolfini moved to its current premises, Bush House, in 1975, a near-derelict Grade II listed warehouse on the quayside of Bristol's floating harbour. Led by the influential and ecologically minded JT Design/Build Group, this groundbreaking warehouse conversion was to prove a timely and pioneering move. With Bristol's docks closed to commercial traffic in 1975, Arnolfini provided a catalyst in attracting other businesses to the then-neglected harbourside, which has since become a focal point for Bristol's social and cultural life.
In the mid 1980s Bush House was to feature on one of four Royal Mail stamps celebrating urban renewal. In 1987 Arnolfini commissioned the architect David Chipperfield to remodel the interior spaces, which included a beautifully minimal and visually striking café-bar created in partnership with the artist Bruce McLean. More recently Arnolfini underwent a major project with architects Snell Associates to refurbish and expand its spaces, reopening in September 2005 with a dramatic new double-height gallery, light and dark studios and Reading Room.
Taking its name from Jan van Eyck's famous fifteenth century painting The Arnolfini Portrait, Arnolfini has showcased work by hundreds of challenging and sometimes controversial artists and performers, often relatively unknown at the time. Vito Acconci, Gillian Ayres, Bobby Baker, Baschet Brothers, Louise Bourgeois, Ian Breakwell, Stuart Brisley, Marcel Broodthaers, Brian Catling, Harold Cohen, Robert Denny, Peter Doig, Barry Flanagan, Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, Susan Hiller, John Hilliard, Howard Hodgkin, David Inshaw, Alistair MacLennan, Michael Craig Martin, Jonathan Monk, Gina Pane, Paula Rego, Michael Snow, Homer Sykes, Mark Titchner, Richard Wentworth and Rachel Whiteread have all shown work at Arnolfini.
Contemporary music, dance and performance groups including Adventures in Motion Pictures, Bodies in Flight, Blast Theory, the Cholmondeleys and the Featherstonehaughs, DV8 Physical Theatre, Forced Entertainment, Goat Island Performance Group, Jerome Bel, London Sinfonietta, Michael Nyman Band, Philip Glass Ensemble, People Show, Shobana Jeyasingh, Soft Machine, and The Ting: Theatre of Mistakes have all performed at Arnolfini. Arnolfini has also played host to a number of festivals, including the first Festival of British Independent Cinema, Brief Encounters short film festival and the biennial Inbetween Time Festivals of Live Art and the Bristol Artists Book Events.
The book Art Spaces: Arnolfini published by Scala covers Arnolfini's history in more detail. It's available from Arnolfini's bookshop priced £4.95.