I’d had quite a few years of experience working for big cultural organisations like Tate Liverpool and I was at the Whitworth in Manchester for 10 years. But for some time, I'd been living in Leigh, which is a small town equidistant between Liverpool and Manchester within the Greater Manchester framework. I was commuting every day in and out of Manchester, to somewhere like the Whitworth which had recently undertaken a beautiful capital redevelopment project, was devising and hosting important, ambitious exhibitions and had an impactful engagement programme. I was really aware of the disparity of opportunity around culture in a place like Leigh and the Turnpike Gallery was something that, like many people within the sector, and beyond, I was very aware of. I knew it had had this really interesting history of supporting a lot of artists in their early days who then became key artists nationally, particularly artists from the Northwest. It was a ballsy little gallery with a great legacy.
And kind of a surprising space in a town like Leigh. It is a brutalist, concrete, future focused piece of architecture built on what was the market square and so quite a radical thing, really, from the 1970s.
When austerity really bit hard, particularly in the North of England, and local councils were making some tough decisions, the gallery closed down as did Drumcroon, which was a really pioneering centre of excellence for cultural education in Wigan. So for both organisations to go was a double blow for the area.
Luckily, after its closure, the gallery continued to be ringfenced for the arts by a team of really active volunteers, which meant it was protected from being repurposed as something else.When the opportunity came about to take it on, it was a real leap of faith, but thankfully one that other people and organisational partners took with me.
I developed a community interest company (The Turnpike CIC) in order to run a cultural offer and to try to devise a way that would create an arts legacy for that town; to deploy culture, hopefully in a really useful way for my own community. So from there, you know, just kind of flew by the seat of my pants.
What strikes me most about Leigh is how its sense of place is rooted in the pride it feels for its heritage. It has had its knocks with the decline of the mining industry, the Thatcher era and has been hard bitten by austerity and underinvestment. And like many post-industrial towns, it has survived by being fiercely independent and community driven. And really the way the community activated itself was through this sense of, ‘well, we'll look after ourselves then, thanks very much’. The town is activated through community interest companies, community organisations, and volunteer-led organisations and there’s that push to say, let’s look after ourselves and let’s look after each other. Through an ideological lens, I suppose you’d say there’s a definite co-supportive eco system happening here, but on the flip side, this could also reduce context and create insularity in terms of the conversations that can happen and the level of aspiration that’s seen as achievable.
The Brexit vote happened before we took on the gallery, but the result was something that personally really triggered something in me to say: let's look at expanding those horizons, expanding those conversations, bringing in broader contexts. And one of the great ways to do that is through the arts.
Yeah, sure there are some standouts. And, and it's often those stand out projects which really crystallise, what it is that you want to do and what you think is going to work. We began with humble means but with big aspirations, so we partnered with organisations like Liverpool Biennial to enable us to bring international artists and global perspectives to Leigh. Our programme was centred on exploring local themes but connecting them up with big conversations. So, for example, we exhibited the Algeria-born artist Mohamed Bourouissa’s Horse Day in 2019, an amazing work about marginalisation, community activism and collective spirit. We exhibited four or five large exhibitions like that each year and firmly embedded throughout was an active programme of engagement and participation.
In the Summer of 2019, our thinking took a bit of a turn when we were selected as the host organisation for the Alexandra Reinhardt Memorial Award and worked with the artist Lindsey Mendick. Lindsey had this great idea to form a collective: a group of artists working in clay in a really radical way. Throughout the summer the collective worked in partnership with Wigan Targeted Youth Services with a group of looked after young people to form ‘The Turnpike Pottery’. And the culmination of that was just this explosion of celebration of young activism and confidence; a celebration of youth voice through this medium, and it was a riot of colour, and it was just fantastic. It should have been nominated for the Turner Prize, I think it was absolutely beautiful.
But what we gained through that project as an organisation was a revived focus. Through that process we saw a tangible shift in the way that we operated, which was around creating a collective, creating a dialogue, and broadening out the conversation: handing over that kind of curatorial space, granting permission I suppose. Enabling people to have deep-rooted, longer-term engagement rather than a ‘flash in the pan’ project that then parachutes off again. And so from this learning, we decided to create a new way of working which we called Activations.
We began the process with the Liverpool-based artist Francis Disley who worked with a group that we've known for quite a while called Fallen Angels Dance Theatre. Through regular dance sessions, they work regularly with people in recovery from addiction. And she created this incredible project with them over a long period of time, in and out of lockdown. It triggered a more radical approach to delivery, actually just prior to the first Covid lockdown.
We were able to do a huge amount of work and actually, for much of the time, it felt busier than ever during lockdown. We placed our Activations programme front and centre of our activity and enabled these projects to really work within this context: this weird new world context that we all found ourselves operating in.
For example, we’d already started a commissioned project, These Lancashire Women are Witches in Politics with the artists Anna FC Smith and Helen Mather who were amazing, as were most of the artists that we worked with, in just reimagining and reshaping what they were offering. When we were all isolating, they engaged with people collectively online, sending out materials to people to create works of art. The central message of the process was around, women's roles in political activism, in particular, the demonisation of working class women engaged in activism. It was a great vehicle for creating solidarity and, a bit like Lindsey's project, it went from a two person exhibition into 100 person commission. It really chimed with the idea of democracy, with the idea of creativity as a connector. And that culminated in all of those objects coming back to us; ceramic sigils, embroidered banners and ceramics to form a celebratory exhibition – a kind of reunion when we reopened.
We’ve been really lucky to have worked with the artists that we've worked with and to have seen how they’ve deployed themselves in that way. They adapted brilliantly to the circumstances. For Frances Disley’s piece, the dancers ended up meeting in a local park. And then when the first lockdown lift happened, and we were able to do things within restricted parameters, they came back into the gallery and the piece Epic Luxe was produced, which we showcased at the Northern Powerhouse Conference. And it was a work of art of its time; resilience, transformation, creativity. It's just really beautiful.
Interestingly, Juliet, some of the people we were working with were Covid-sceptic. So we found ourselves dealing with protest.
It was, but we just used it as an opportunity to really great conversation about, ‘it doesn’t really matter what happens within the political sphere and where your position is, but we do need to care for each other and be kind to each other.’
We became a bit of a testbed for continuity, for example, bringing in children who were transitioning into secondary school to work with artists in order to build confidence. We did this in ‘bubbles’ in partnership with Curious Minds. Some of our work seemed really quite low-key, like we took over the brutalist, concrete flower beds at the front of the gallery and created a recovery garden. And we did a walking project with the artist Niki Colclough. And I know that all sounds quite gentle, doesn't it? But actually, it was about people coming together and taking the opportunity to actively reimagine and re-evaluate the place where they lived most of their lives.
We knew that we couldn’t just shut our doors and say, okay, well we'll get some emergency money and we'll sit tight, and we'll ride it out. So we occupied our green spaces, our civic spaces, our virtual spaces. It just meant that we could work within these ever-shifting parameters and keep going, and so could our communities.
Outdoor spaces actually became a really important aspect of our provision. We ended up partnering with Lancashire Wildlife Trust on a project we called Wanderland, which opened up those outdoor spaces for community action and creativity. We did that because the Wildlife Trust wanted to test out these new ways of working with artists and using these spaces in a less predictable way. With young people, particularly, their engagement with these often underused green spaces allowed us to then open up more conversations around climate action and climate justice. We didn't want that to amplify anxiety, but it became a focal point during lockdown and we wanted to make sure that these young people were using these spaces for cultural activism. I think, through engagement with that unique kind of biodiversity on their doorstep, even if it was the concrete flower bed at the front of the gallery, there's a connection there that reinforces that message.
Yeah, sure. Well, I'll backtrack slightly in saying that we didn't get emergency funding from the Arts Council, but we did manage to secure project funding for the Activations programme which was a bit of a miracle. We didn't get that much-needed money that would have supported us unconditionally, but then we're used to that. But what that pot of project money did enable was for us to continue to engage. One of the big things that we did start in lockdown was the Making of Us artists’ development programme, which we're actually wrapping up today. That has been a two-year programme with two cohorts of artists from across Greater Manchester, supported through the GMCA Culture Fund. And that was a cross partnership project where artists were connected up to care providers, youth organisations and autism organisations, to develop their own practice, but also for us to lay fruitful ground for ongoing socially engaged practice by developing this local cohort of artists. It’s all very well, us talking about local provision, but if we don't provide opportunities for the artists to actually lead that local provision in the long term, then there's a failure there.
There's all the evidence and the learning outcomes from that project which we hope will establish a strong model for artists’ development projects for the future. And so that, and other legacy building projects, have been a big part of our final year.
We centred ourselves on bringing people back together, again. Workshops, re-uniting people and bringing new people into the gallery as well as reviving the cultural education programme, because we were really mindful that schools had suffered, children and young people and the broader community were needing this point of connection and joy again.
Well, this is it, I think there's been so much aspiration to go back to ‘normal’ after the pandemic, that a lot of people forgot that ‘normal’ before the pandemic for a lot of people was terrible, was really not good at all. And, you know, lots of us were striving very, very hard to change it. And I guess with the 2019 election, that agenda for change seems to have been pretty decisively rejected. But there were, you know, 10 million people voting for that manifesto and it's important not to lose sight of that.
I was sorry to hear you're winding down what you're doing with The Turnpike. So, can we talk about why that decision has been taken?
Yes, it did perhaps seem like quite an abrupt decision actually. But it wasn't, it took an awful lot of reflection, collectively, to land on that outcome. We’ve had five years with an eye on the future for the role of culture within the town. We tested things out and we've made sure we didn't lose anything in terms of learning, evaluation and sharing those outcomes — the things we learned from collaborating with a really broad array of people and partnerships. I suppose after five years, we came to a crossroads and some of us wanted to move on and try other things. And the simple thing probably for me to do was to just recruit someone in and say, ‘Goodbye, off you go and good luck’. But actually, I knew what a fight it has been to throw a kind of forcefield around that place so that we were able to operate in a way that felt right for us, ethically, socially, creatively. And the idea of leaving it dangling within the current landscape, I just thought it was going to be left very vulnerable to being picked apart by other agendas and could potentially morph into something that it was never meant to be. I’m not conceited enough to say nobody else could lead that organisation because I know there are some brilliant people who could have come in and taken it on. But I was also aware of the bigger context that the organisation had to operate in. And my hope is that another independent, radical organisation will come in and take over when the time is right.
We lay some really fruitful ground, I think, for that to happen. We were always future focused, we've developed artists, we've developed work with communities, we hope we've developed some models of best practice or good practice, at least. We hope we’ve embedded culture into young people's lives and have amplified the importance of cultural education within schools. And we hope we've developed secure partnerships, and a lot of the people that we've secured partnerships with are now taking up the mantle to carry on quite a bit of this work.
The art gallery itself is owned by the local authority who have now taken it back under their ownership as a temporary measure. And so the understanding with them is that they speak to, and listen to, the collective of people who really invested with us and went on this journey with us for five years. That means people from three to ninety-five year-olds, and they’re all there, these people are a gift – they understand the importance of culture in the every day and, understandably, want to shape its future role. Those people should be given a voice, and if they’re not, then they should demand one. All of those artists should be leading this now and I sincerely hope that that happens. Because, frankly, I do believe that if it doesn't, it's not going to work.
Yes, and you’ve planted that seed. And I think again, during the New Labour period, as well as kind of saying ‘well, if we build galleries in these provincial towns and small cities, then people will come’, there's also been this attitude of ‘well, if there's nothing for you there, or you're bored, just move to the nearest city’, which of course, came back to bite them. So yes, I'd be interested to see if that pendulum swings the other way. And I hope that the work you've done with The Turnpike leads people in Leigh to say, ‘Well, look, we can have a place where the arts contribute to regenerating the town without gentrifying it.’
I hope so, because if this becomes a period now of affectation. If culture is used as a tool for posturing and photo opportunities that enable short-termist agendas, it's just not going to play out. And again, it shouldn't - I'm optimistic that it won't.