After working in Edinburgh and London for several years, multidisciplinary artist Bren O’Callaghan decided to return to his hometown of Manchester two decades ago to pursue his craft. “I was happy [in Manchester], but I did wonder occasionally if I’d done the right thing. I felt a certain pull towards the capital,” admits the smart, wry 43-year-old. Indeed, with a population of some half a million souls and a global reputation as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and two famous football clubs, Manchester might not seem like a cultural heavy-hitter at first glance.
Walk around the city centre today, though, and there is clearly a buzz. Cast-iron bridges and iconic red-brick buildings mingle with sleek skyscrapers and large public squares, while every corner seems to house a new construction site. Pop-up galleries display intriguing works by up-and-coming artists; people spill out of pavement cafés in the city’s trendy Northern Quarter; and stacks of flyers advertise gigs and exhibitions for every night of the week.
An extraordinary cultural rebirth is transforming the city from “Madchester” – a nickname from its heady, halcyon music subculture heyday – to one of the United Kingdom’s most important creative hotbeds. Today, it is home to five producing theatres, three professional orchestras, a sprawling television and film sector, as well as a famous music scene that has continued to thrive beyond its late-’80s zenith.
“We can now see that culture doesn’t exist only in London, but that the north is an area where work can grow and develop, not just be delivered”
“[But] then more people started to move back, and I felt vindicated,” O’Callaghan says. “One afternoon I saw one of those open-topped buses in the city centre and I thought, ‘When did we start getting tourists?’ I don’t think they’re here for the sights… I think they’re here for the culture, the music, the people.”
Today, O’Callaghan practises his art – a walk-in Mexicana diorama and an audio-only adaptation of an old experimental film, among other projects – at Paradise Works studios. Just over a year old, the not-for-profit, which is supported by Arts Council England, houses nearly 30 different artists working in sculpture, film, installation and other mediums.
Paradise Works is just one example of how Manchester is bucking a prevailing national trend of reduced investment in the arts. This summer, three of its major institutions – Manchester Museum, Manchester Jewish Museum and Contact Theatre – will undergo multimillion-pound makeovers. This comes hot on the heels of a celebrated revival of the Whitworth Art Gallery in 2015. And while other UK local authorities have slashed their spending, Greater Manchester allocates more than £3 million a year to the regional arts scene.
“The opportunities have always been here, but they are increasing,” O’Callaghan says. “We can now see that culture doesn’t exist only in London, but that the north is an area where work can grow and develop, not just be delivered.” When he’s not making art, O’Callaghan manages the visual arts programme at the gorgeous, glass-fronted Home, another success story that opened in 2015 following a merger between arthouse cinema Cornerhouse and Library Theatre Company. The new creative centre cost some £25 million in mostly public funding, but within a year of opening, it generated over £30 million for the local economy, welcoming over a million visitors through its doors. It was compelling evidence of how the arts could really pay off for Manchester.
According to Dave Moutrey, director of Home and the recently appointed director of culture for Manchester, “culture is in the city’s DNA”. After all, Manchester is the place that invented the modern computer and birthed countless notable writers, musicians and artists including the Smiths, Oasis, Jeanette Winterson and Anthony Burgess.
And while many point to the British Broadcasting Corporation’s 2012 relocation to the Greater Manchester borough of Salford as responsible for kick-starting the city’s cultural renaissance, Moutrey thinks it all started with the launch of Manchester International Festival (MIF) two years prior.
Indeed, the UK’s very first festival of new commissions “reached a worldwide audience that we hadn’t been reaching before – there were headlines in the New York Times,” he reflects. “What it also did was act as a catalyst for change within the city. A lot of cultural organisations realised they had been treading water and needed to get better.”
Six editions later, MIF is raising the bar yet again. Come 2020, it will run the Factory, a multidisciplinary arts venue at the old Granada Studios site on Quay Street. When the Factory opens, it’ll be a first for the city, and also the world: a venue that will create, exhibit and export new work, with leading artists making pieces alongside budding creatives.
“This isn’t Manchester’s version of an existing place; it’s a new type of institution that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the country,” declares MIF’s artistic director, 55-year-old John McGrath. “It’s a statement that we’re not mirroring something happening in London, just on a smaller scale. We’re actually doing something that doesn’t happen there at all.”
Aside from these high-profile projects, there’s also a renewed focus on nurturing the city’s pool of creative talent. Manchester City Council recently helped art collective Rogue Studios in its search for a new home by proposing suitable sites, with the latter eventually deciding on a permanent studio space in Openshaw on the outskirts of the city. Meanwhile, Home has introduced a talent development programme involving workshops, long-term development residencies, commissions and showcase opportunities. In addition, decade-old art fair the Manchester Contemporary now co-runs an art fund that purchases work from contemporary artists to update the permanent collection of the Manchester Art Gallery, a win-win situation for both artists and the institution.
Over at Castlefield Gallery, director Helen Wewiora gives at least one solo exhibition a year to someone from northwest England and introduces fledgling artists to more established ones through group shows and exchange programmes. Today, the gallery is widely regarded as a springboard into major festivals, biennials and awards. “I feel very strongly about the important work the Castlefield Gallery does. We’re part of Manchester’s cultural offer – we’re there as a public gallery, but we’re also artist-focused,” she reflects. “Manchester is full of artists and we’re proud to support them.”
This supportive artistic community is one of the reasons why local ceramicist Katherine Lees chose to stay on in the city after completing her degree in contemporary crafts at the University of Manchester in 2005. Just over a year ago, 35-year-old Lees, whose friendly, laid-back manner belies a serious work ethic, won one of 19 sought-after studio and retail spaces in the Manchester Craft & Design Centre – a converted Victorian fish market in the Northern Quarter – after benefiting from its Future Makers scheme, which invites an established city artist or maker to back a recent graduate. Lees’ degree show impressed longstanding Manchester ceramicist Lee Page Hanson so much that he chose to display some of her work in his shop at the Centre, allowing Lees access to an audience she would have struggled to find at such an early stage in her career. She credits their ongoing relationship as one of the factors that helped her win a place of her own. “There’s a lot more going on now than there was when I first came here,” she says. “It feels like the city’s really come alive and there are far more opportunities for creative people.”
A 2018 report by innovation foundation Nesta showed that Manchester has the fastest growing creative industry outside of London. Indeed, for many of those pursuing creative careers, Manchester is slowly but surely becoming a viable alternative to the capital.
Moutrey, for his part, certainly feels confident. “Ask someone in Kazakhstan what they know about Manchester at the moment and it’ll be Manchester City or Manchester United,” he says. “It would be great if in a few years’ time they also talked about our arts and culture, and I think we’re well on our way.”
A brief history of Manchester’s creative renaissance
The biennial Manchester International Festival, “the world’s first festival of original, new work and special events”, launches with a mission to curate local and international programming at spaces across the city. Highlights of the first edition include a live art show by Matthew Barney and an international production of a Chinese legend, Monkey: Journey to the West. Nibbles at Festival Square are provided by none other than celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal.
Serial entrepreneur Thom Hetherington launches art fair the Manchester Contemporary. People tell him he’ll never be able to sell art in the city; there simply isn’t a market. A decade on, the fair has sold more than £3 million of art and has become a respected name in the art world, with works by major players such as Tracey Emin and Grayson Perry alongside those by emerging artists.
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), headquartered in London, moves a portion of its operations to the MediaCityUK mixed-use development in Salford, Greater Manchester, sending hundreds of creatives to the north and generating over 4,000 jobs in the area. Though some experts call the impact less dramatic than expected, Greater Manchester’s head of employment and skills, Sean Anstee, heralds the move as “instrumental in sparking a creative and digital revolution in the city region”.
Manchester welcomes Home, an impressive glass-fronted complex comprising five cinemas, a 500-seat theatre and a 180-seat studio theatre, as well as an adaptable shape-shifting gallery. It’s walking distance from the Manchester Opera House, concert venue the Bridgewater Hall and dance and performance space the Dancehouse.
Following a widely praised renovation and relaunch the previous year, Whitworth Art Gallery opens the Art Garden in partnership with Jo Malone London, “a key space for outdoor events and horticultural activities”. It also unveils a 12m metal tree by British installation artist Anya Gallaccio, a tribute to a tree that died during the renovation.
– PHOTOGRAPHY BY PETER CORCORAN
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This article was originally published in the August 2018 issue of SilverKris magazine