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.