VENUES: HOME is where the art is

Manchester's newest arts venue is one year old. Patrick Kelly pays a visit

 

We know that Manchester likes a party. So what better way to celebrate the first birthday of the city’s new arts centre than by throwing a major anniversary celebration in the venue itself, complete with installations, performance, theatre productions, film previews, live music, workshops and family events.

Unlike the occasion which opened the £25m arts complex, this one didn’t have Danny Boyle doing the birthday honours, but it did have a sculpture cascading down the main staircase, painting and storytelling, a book launch with Scottish poet laureate Jackie Kay, a rooftop food festival, puppets and a film crew recreating iconic scenes from the hit TV programme Queer as Folk.

One year on, HOME’s chief executive Dave Moutrey is confident that the new venue has won the affections of a city that doesn’t bestow them lightly. “Things have gone even better than we hoped” he says. “We have proved you can change the geography of the arts in the city”.

This was an important shift. HOME is the result of a merger between two of Manchester’s much-loved arts institutions, the Cornerhouse cinema and art gallery and the Library theatre. Although both had good reasons for joining up, Cornerhouse was bursting out of its old premises and the Library theatre had to leave its iconic basement home in the city’s library, the move was not uni- versally popular.

Critics said that both organisations would suffer a loss if independence, that the new HOME was too far off the beaten track to attract audiences and that the homely environments of the previous buildings would be lost in a mega-building surrounded by glitzy office blocks.

But HOME has established itself, as the figures show. Over 1 million visits since it opened in May 2015, easily surpassing its 550,000 target. It has sold more than 211,000 tickets, generating some £30 million for the Greater Man- chester economy and supporting 125 jobs.

The arts venue has recruited over 280 volunteers, from a wide range of backgrounds, providing them with op- portunities to develop, gain new skills, share expertise and give something back to the community. More than 32,000 visi- tors, including 3,800 young people, have taken part in 745 talks, workshops, tours and engagement events. 57,000 visitors have been to see the exhibitions.

Highlights of the year include critically acclaimed group shows The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things and Safe, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s I must first apologise..., and AL and AL’s Incidents of Travel in the Multiverse. The theatre programme has produced its own work such as The Funfair, The Oresteia, Inkheart and collaborations with the Young Vic, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, and Complicite.

The film programme (530 films shown so far) has been widely praised for its breadth and diversity, with spe- cially curated film seasons (James Benning, Jim Allen) and one-off events.

HOME has redeemed its promise to keep ticket prices low, and 13,500 theatre tickets for £10 have been sold. “Cin- ema audiences have grown by 25,000 since the old Cornerhouse days” says Moutrey. “And we have tripled the thea- tre audience”. The Inspire Scheme, supported by the Oglesby Charitable Trust, has enabled HOME to provide low cost tickets to specific community groups and those who might not normally have the opportunity to take part in cultural events.

Moutrey adds that the strong em- phasis on talent development has seen more than 230 local creatives showcasing their work, while 1,800 hours’ worth of free rehearsal space has been provided to theatre companies. A young creatives scheme, led by industry professionals, helps develop skills and encourage innovative thinking.

Arts Council England’s Northern di- rector Alison Clark is a fan of the “won- derfully buzzy atmosphere” of HOME which she says “has already made a huge impact on the cultural life of Man- chester and the North West, making the city an even more compelling place for audiences and artists”.

The idea of a new centre for contemporary art, theatre and film – what The Guardian describes as “Manchester’s version of the Barbican or Southbank Centre” had been around for some time. Indeed, the first conversation between Dave Moutrey, then in charge of the Cornerhouse, and Chris Honer, director of the Library theatre, about a new ven- ue had taken place as far back as 2006.

“We thought there was an artistic case for a merger, not just an accommo- dation one”, says Moutrey. But nothing came of the idea and both sides were looking for their own premises when they met Manchester City chief execu- tive Sir Howard Bernstein.

Bernstein was looking for a project that would help pull the city out of the post-crash doldrums and he was keen that project should be culture led. He mooted the idea of a brand new build- ing shared by both organisations, in an area of the city that was central, but in need of regeneration.

“But Chris and I said, ‘Not sharing, merging. Two organisations sharing one building would be a recipe for disagree- ment.’” says Moutrey.

Instead they set up a new organisation with an artistic bent towards new ideas and home-produced creativity, spiced with national and international productions.

Moutrey is proudest of Viva, a weekend of Spanish and Latin American culture, which included film premieres, scratch theatre performances by a Cuban writer and an array of visual art from Spanish speaking areas at home and abroad.

He also points to the co-commissions with the Young Vic and Citizens Theatre as examples of work which could not have been done before the merger.

Manchester city council became the biggest funder of HOME, committing £19m at a time when many local author- ities were beginning an annual round of arts cuts.

But does the council’s support for another arts hub at the Factory represent a threat to HOME’s audience? Has Man- chester’s market for culture reached sat- uration point? Moutrey is dismissive. “These are not questions that would be asked in London” he says. “Two-thirds of the UK’s population live within a two hour drive of this city. We have the larg- est international airport outside Lon- don. There’s plenty of room to grow. Something like the Factory will become another part of the city’s arts ecology”.

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