The state of the arts in Manchester

By November 28, 2015


home‘Is Manchester on course to become a cultural powerhouse to rival London?’ asks a BBC journalist reporting on the opening of HOME, a newly built £25million arts venue in Manchester’s city center. Questions such as this, regarding Manchester’s newfound ability to compete with London as a cultural capital have been echoed across broadsheet newspapers and overheard in arts venues within Manchester repeatedly since February when Manchester’s Whitworth Art gallery opened its doors after a £15 million revamp. Helen Pidd reporting on the gallery’s opening weekend for the Guardian observed how ‘most of London’s art world appeared to have come up’ to the Northern gallery. But what of Manchester’s art world?

The refurbishment of the Whitworth is one in a series of major events in the city’s artistic life. The Central Library reopened spring of 2014 after a £50m revamp; the Royal Northern College of Music completed a £7.1m refurbishment of its concert hall in the autumn; Manchester School of Art has opened a new £34m building. The £25m Home – a theatre, five-screen cinema and gallery opened this April. The council is a driving force behind this, with cash also coming from the city’s universities, the Heritage Lottery Fund and other bodies.

It is reasonable to ask why Manchester should be so fervently supporting the arts, regarded by many austerity-pressed British cities as a nice-to-have rather than a necessity. The reason is that Manchester sees culture as part of its growth strategy. A flourishing arts scene promotes the city as a destination for tourism and attracts businesses. I see this view of art and its ‘use’ as problematic not just for the art world and artists but also for the city of Manchester and it’s art scene. Once cultural centres become merely attractions created in order to bring money into a place not only does their content often become diluted but their purpose also becomes confused.

The Whitworth gallery and Home boast of the work they do with children, sufferers from dementia and other actions undertaken by the venues to socially benefit the community. While I am not denying the value of this kind of work, or belittling the efforts made by these institutions to create interesting programmes and workshops for a diverse range of people, I question whether the recent inflation of these venues (in both size and status) will have a completely positive effect on Manchester’s art scene.

As a recent arts graduate interested in working within the arts I made a wholly conscious decision to live in Manchester over London. I chose Manchester for a variety of reasons including its friendly residents, size, vibrant nightlife, interesting architecture and of course its flourishing art scene. I did not merely see Manchester as second to London, preferable only for its cheap rent (although this of course enables you to work less and enjoy the city more). It is frustrating to see Manchester follow the trends of the London art scene. When the Whitworth reopened in February it did so with the help of 250 volunteers now working within the gallery. With volunteers now undertaking roles previously paid for by the gallery the Whitworth joins a number of London based galleries as an institution that can play off its status and take advantage of the vast number of people wanting to make a career in the arts.

I worry that an increase in large art venues in the city will leave the smaller and less established organisations struggling. One of the things that make Manchester’s scene so great is its diverse range of venues and organizations producing, displaying and promoting art, from the Paper gallery, promoting only works on paper, to Z-Arts putting on predominantly performance art and sites such as Islington Mill, working with artists and musicians to create a collaborative and exciting creative place.

I hope that through promoting and exploring Manchester’s lesser known art spaces, at the same time as enjoying the beneficial and interesting work that the more established, more business minded and corporate ones undertake, we can counteract some of the potential damage caused by viewing London as the ideal cultural capital. Despite these concerns I strongly believe that Manchester has a unique and exciting artistic and cultural identity that can be sustained if we continue to appreciate and explore its diverse projects and artistic scene.