Manchester Arts & Culture – what happens next? (June 2015)


The first six months 2015 have been full of positive arts and culture news in the city. We’ve had the triumphant refurbishment and relaunch of the Whitworth, the opening of Home – complete with evidence of ambitious programming in the new location – and we’re still trying to digest the news of a new £78 million theatre and arts venue to be built on the former site of Granada’s TV studios in Manchester. And this year’s Manchester International Festival, at the time of writing, is just a few days away…

I have been celebrating this news of course, but I harbour some reservations too. I know the minute you start asking questions about Manchester’s standing in the world, then people jump down your throat. We’re all expected to join in relentless civic boosterism that Manchester is beyond reproach and perfect in every way possible, and anyone who wonders or worries whether this is really so is accused, North Korea-style, of disloyalty.

The first thing every creative person learns, every artist, writer, poet, singer, is that you need to be self-critical. That some things may not be quite right, you can be better. You teach yourself to take a step back, reassess, edit, challenge yourself. It’s not with negative intentions that I’m writing this, it’s in the spirit of celebrating how far we’ve come and wondering if we could, for one moment, turn a critical eye to what’s happening in the city.

Engagement and access is an issue. How many people in the city were touched by the exciting arts and culture news of the last six months? A large number, judging by the queues outside the Whitworth on the opening weekend. But I would guess an even larger number of the citizens of Greater Manchester either aren’t interested in the news, or think the news is only of relevance to an enclave of culture vultures living in the same city but on another planet.

Engagement is not just an issue in Manchester, its nationwide and its deep-rooted (the running down of arts education doesn’t help, of course). But just because it’s been an issue for so long shouldn’t stop us from trying to improve the situation. We need to. Is there a strategy, the political will or funding to widen interest in arts and culture in the city?

There are many out-reach programmes and initiatives run by the city’s cultural institutions that do tackle this disengagement, particularly at Contact and Z-Arts, but also at the Royal Exchange, the Whitworth, Young Creatives at Home, and at the Art Gallery. But room for expansion and reinvention of these initiatives is obvious, and, of course, alongside the good work, there are lots of short cuts being taken too. Inclusion matters. It’s not enough to wave an arts events brochure in the general direction of those outside the charmed circle, tick a box and move on to the next funding application. Why don’t we set ambitious city-wide targets to widen the demographic? Why don’t we create links between the city centre’s landmark cultural institutions and every neighbourhood, every school, every community centre? If just a tiny proportion of the money spent on bricks and mortar was available for this and/or other initiatives what could be achieved?

This leads to a related, reservation of mine; that we are operating with a skewed definition of cultural regeneration, one that privileges the funding of buildings that house the city centre’s cultural institutions. Creating good spaces for culture consumers has a key role but too often it appears that’s the limit of the ambition of the arts and culture strategy in the city. To build emporia. In the city centre. That look good in a tourist brochure. Eight years ago I wrote in the ‘New Statesman’ that capital (building) projects and other “icons of regeneration fail to empower, or enrich the ordinary citizens” (see here).

You’d be forgiven for thinking that culture in the city is just a pawn in Manchester’s relentless civic boosterism. Council Leader Sir Richard Leese wrote in the Guardian recently and after a quick nod to Factory Records, he listed the good news about the Central Library, the Whitworth, Home, and MIF and made mention of the £78m to-be-built Factory Manchester building (which he described as “a new, large-scale arts space for the city”). He calls all these sparkly buildings the city’s “cultural provision” which, he says, “draws in tourism and attracts wider inward investment by positioning the city as an international centre for culture and the arts”.

The assumption is that culture in the city is whatever is contained in these buildings. And the language is instructive; “cultural provision”. Something provided for us? Something we have an entirely passive relationship to? That art and culture is solely something we can consume? Is this the way the arts establishment and the city’s political leaders see arts and culture in the city? Marketing and consumerism; two of the worst reasons to generate cultural activity.

From a personal perspective, since 1983 via fanzines, record labels, book writing, gig promoting, and event organising, I’ve worked alongside musicians, actors, print-makers, video and film-makers and graphic designers. For most of those thirty plus years all this activity existed in a world parallel to the arts establishment in the city. I had always had the impression that the cultural institutions were wary of independent operators and maverick artists. Then, recently, after about 27 years in a parallel world, I was very grateful to be ushered in by Maria Balshaw at the Whitworth and Christine Cort at MIF to work with and for them on various projects. Collaborating with them I’ve done things I would never have been able to deliver as an independent operator.

In those 27 years I felt part of, and energised by, an independent, alternative, arts culture in the city. We did things in a D-I-Y style, we made things happen out of nothing; that’s what we did, because that’s what Richard Boon (Buzzcocks manager) and Tony Wilson and his Factory Records comrades had done.

A most wonderful and instructive episode in our arts and culture history concerns the Salford lass Shelagh Delaney sixty years ago. She went to a theatre in Manchester to see a hit Terrence Rattigan play called ‘Variation on a Theme’. Disappointed by the deadly dullness of what she’d seen, she returned home and set about writing the play ‘A Taste of Honey’. The first performances by the Theatre Workshop in London were well-received. ‘A Taste of Honey’ is now rightly regarded as one of the most important British plays of the last hundred years.

The city authorities habitually give a nod to Factory Records, but I’m not sure they quite get important parts of the Factory story. The Hacienda wasn’t a disco version of the Trafford Centre. The Factory label, the club, those around and involved – from musicians to video makers – produced culture. It wasn’t an exercise in consuming but creating. In addition, like Shelagh Delaney, not only were they forced into action by despair at the cultural provision of the time, Factory operated outside the margins. One of the richest chapters of Manchester’s cultural history began when the lads who went on to form Joy Division began to meet up in a makeshift rehearsal room above the Black Swan Pub, near Weaste Bus Depot.

This self-organised, independent activity still happens of course; actors, crews, artists, printmakers, musicians, freelancers hiring pub functions rooms, meeting wherever and whenever, trying to bring ideas to life. Isn’t it time these people were celebrated and encouraged?

How do we build on all this and encourage the production of arts and culture in the city, not just the consumption of culture? How do we nurture the grassroots and boost and celebrate the poets, the painters, the designers, the film-makers, the musicians, the fanzine editors, the illustrators, the dancers, the actors? Isn’t it about time we shifted the focus of strategies, initiatives, and funding from bricks and mortar to ideas and artists?

During those 27 years, I didn’t hold back, I got on with stuff; like I say no-one I knew expected any ushering-in or collaborating. But in that time there were plenty of people who, regretfully, had to retreat from involvement in arts and culture, or felt forced to join the brain drain and go to London. Take the case of Carol Morley, currently one of the darlings of the film world after the release of her feature ’The Falling’. There were a few reasons why Carol left Manchester in 1986, but one thing is for sure; if she’d stayed in Manchester her film would never have been made. There’s no meaningful infrastructure for her to tap into, a lack of technicians and casting agents, accessible edit suites, supportive venues with screening facilities, TV commissioning editors, and game-changing film critics. They’re all in London.

What about the young musicians, club promoters, actors, designers, artists and writers of 2015? Undercapitalised and lacking infrastructures and encouragement, they will, of course, carry on, some, maybe most of them; making something out of nothing, as is the nature of creative types everywhere. Is this muddling along enough? Or could we intervene to enable and energise. Are there pathways to success could we develop for them?

It’s taken vision and imagination to get this far but perhaps now is the time for the authorities and the city’s arts establishment to take on more of an enabling role. Being wary or hands-off isn’t appropriate given the changing times. In the late 1970s, into the 1980s Manchester was blessed with acres of cheap ad hoc space; now, post-gentrification, it’s far harder by far to access the spaces, the informal, marginal creative world needs in order to exist. For this, and other reasons, intervention and encouragement is vital.

“Engagement” with marginal communities at the grassroots shouldn’t be seen as charitable good work that the cultural institutions pursue out of the goodness of their heart. This is my point; the widening of the demographic of Manchester arts and culture appreciators and participators creates a more egalitarian city but it makes sense too. Engagement goes both ways, it’s mutually beneficial. Believe it or not, Sir Richard, much that’s great about culture in this city exists outside the cultural institutions; in the dodgy venues, the rehearsal rooms, the uncontrolled spaces, artist’s studios, the basements and the streets.

Funders, city planners and property developers can design and build glitzy buildings from now until the apocalypse, but the fact is, great ideas come from the margins. Shelagh Delaney was a part-time clerk in a milk depot; her urge to create was born out of frustration with the mainstream. Hip hop was born in the Bronx. Picasso spent more time in cabaret clubs like the Lapin Agile than he did in the Louvre.

Pushing out the independents and mavericks creates a more controlled, mainstream, city but also a dead one. Consider the world of clubs and venues. Significant, memorable, venues are those that take a chance, that develop rather than follow trends – from Billy’s down a side street in half-deserted Soho where the 1980s were shaped by fifty people in a basement granted entry there by Steve Strange, to the energy and creativity that came out of the Hacienda, an old warehouse opposite huge rusting gas holders on Whitworth St West. Tiger Tiger could install every disco light ever invented, and the DJs could play every number one David Guetta record back-to-back all night every night, and that place would never have the cultural significance of the Star & Garter. In all things, the margins, not the mainstream, give a city its authenticity, its quirks and its soul.

In 2015 the margins are still busy with self organising independent individuals and collectives dreaming and creating against all odds. You’ll find them at spaces like Islington Mill, Kraak, and Mantra, spoken word events like Bad Language, activities like Video Jam, Flare Festival and the Manchester Print Fair, bands, fanzines, promoters, instigators of all kind of cultural mayhem. But how much more could be achieved if the barriers came down and pathways created and mapped out?

We need to make efforts to aggregate and celebrate this activity, the remarkable resourcefulness at the margins of the city. It’s there where you’ll find the future. Manchester has an energy, and a rebellious spirit. My contention is that the dominant arts scene needs the mavericks and the disaffected; they will be ones that rejuvenate the city’s culture.

We need to rebalance decisions, strategy and planning. For example, there is constantly an under-representation of practising artists from public debates on the issue of Manchester’s arts and culture strategies – especially local, young, voiceless, undercapitalised, artists; they’re very rarely invited onto panels at public discussions, debates, talks, think tank meetings, or seminars. We need to hear from people outside of the charmed circle.

I’m not exactly sure what the plans are for the new £78m Factory Manchester. It’s an “arts space” says Sir Richard, although the way things are going in five years time we might need to think about turning into a giant foodbank. I’m not up to speed with the business plan, but it’s likely there will be an annual shortfall (the £78m is for bricks and mortar, rather than running costs). If Manchester City Council expects to step in, then they will need to begin making a case.

I’d like to think we could ask more important questions than how good will this building look in the city’s marketing brochures. For example; how will it stimulate cultural activity and artistic production in the grassroots? I’d like to think it could be aiming for something we aren’t restricted to a passive relationship with; something that will lure consumers and investors but produce ideas, and artistic work too. Something at the centre of an advanced city, a participatory, creative, artistic city.

It will take time, a re-balancing, a new vocabulary, a strategy, and funding too. It will also take courage, in a way, because if you give voice to those currently ignored or unheard the message you then hear may not be flattering to the city. But that’s art; a means to express, document, re-imagine, and question ourselves and our world.

Will we unleash creativity, reach out and nurture the local talent? Perhaps then, in years to come, the Factory Manchester building, without displacing any great art or performance from outside the city, will be in a position feature a new wave of local creatives, thinkers, producers, technicians, musicians, film-makers, the future Carol Morleys who don’t end up in London. And in addition to the big bricks and mortar projects, help turn Manchester into a disparate mess of activity everywhere, in every street, around every corner, in every heart, in every imagination? A city that stimulates artistic activity, that offers limitless opportunities for artists to thrive, for ideas to come alive, that enriches rather than alienates the grassroots.

The recent good news, the high profile of the city’s cultural institutions is a sign of a sense of confidence, and a can-do spirit. Let’s go deeper now, to the heart of creative invention. We’ve come this far, can we set some new challenges? Our goal; a truly city-wide creative renaissance.

‘Life After Dark: A History of British Nightclubs & Music Venues’ by Dave Haslam is published on August 13th 2015. More information here;