My friend Bernard Samuels, who has died aged 89, left his job as a teacher in Devon in 1971 to become the director of Plymouth Arts Centre, and fulfilled this role with intelligence, energy and creativity for the next 25 years. He developed lasting friendships and cultural contacts throughout the UK, and created a space described by the painter Patrick Heron as the “perfect arts centre”. Bernard’s programmes ranged from contemporary art to multi-media events, incorporating exhibitions, performances and concerts, which included Heathcote Williams readings and chamber music by the Brodsky Quartet.
Bernard provided a springboard for the careers of successive art coordinators at the centre who went on to fulfil senior roles in national and regional art and craft organisations. Plymouth Arts Centre became a major venue for both established and contemporary art and performance. He was credited with giving their first solo exhibitions to Beryl Cook (in 1975) and Ben Hartley (in 1977) – who had both been relatively unknown painters living locally. He further developed the space as an arts cinema, refurbishing and extending the premises in the 80s.
In 1996 Hartley died, bequeathing hundreds of paintings and over 300 notebooks to Bernard. Retiring that year from the Arts Centre, Bernard set about archiving this collection. He published a monograph illustrating Hartley’s work in 2001, and went on to organise major retrospectives in Presteigne, Bath, Southampton, Norwich, Plymouth and Dartington.
Bernard was born in Manchester, the younger son of Morris Samuels, a furrier, and Gertrude (nee Beer), a housewife. After leaving Stand grammar school, and graduating from Cambridge with a degree in languages and a certificate in education, Bernard arrived in Devon to teach French at Plymouth college, an independent school. During his time there he showed a foretaste of his later career as an arts impresario and animateur by directing school drama productions.
Bernard’s legacy to the cultural life of Plymouth, and the UK, continues to grow. In 2002 he set up a non-profit company to promote Hartley’s work, devoting any income from the sale of books, postcards and some of the paintings to sponsoring young painters and composers. Wanting to ensure lasting public access to the work, Bernard gave the Ben Hartley archive together with several paintings and prints to the Box gallery in Plymouth. He also donated paintings to the Victoria Art Gallery, Bath.
Bernard’s companion, Mary Thomson, and his brother, Jack, both predeceased him.