MUSEUMS Bury’s marvellous Met

Just half an hour from downtown Manchester, the Bury Met is forging its own path to the future. Patrick Kelly went to have a look

 

In Manchester, the talk is all of the recently opened HOME arts centre, and the plan for a mega venue at the Factory as part of the government’s Northern Powerhouse. The city is a poster child for the cultural renaissance of the North. But just half an hour away from the bustling bars and thriving theatres of the city centre, there’s another kind of revival going on. The Bury Met arts centre currently is undergoing a £4.5 million refurbishment.

The Met, housed in a former courthouse known as the Derby Hall, has been the centre of a quiet revolution in a town which may not have the urban cachet of Manchester but has established a reputation among music fans as one of the top venues in the country. Over 45,000 people a year come to its events, recording studio and festivals programme. It is ranked 39th in the PRS Top 100 venues in the UK and has hosted performances from the likes of Joy Division, Elbow, Steve Coogan, Eddie Izzard, Johnny Vegas, Caroline Aherne and Lee Evans.

The Met is owned by the Bury Metropolitan Arts Association, which been beating the cultural drum for more than three decades. (As it happens the arts association was founded by Dewi Lewis, who later went on to set up Manchester’s Cornerhouse.) In the early days, the arts association organised dance schools, amateur dramatics, concerts and became home to a folk club.

Although the building had various upgrades over the years, it was in serious need of investment and a long-awaited revamp finally got under way in March. It is largely funded by Arts Council England (which has made a £3.1 million investment) with the remaining sum coming from Bury Council, while the Garfield Weston Foundation leads a posse of other benefactors, including the Oglesby Foundation, the Monument Trust, the Granada Foundation and The Guardian.

The refurbishment will increase the venue’s capacity and attract more na- tional talent to perform in Bury. It will also renovate the building’s heritage features, restoring fabulous Victorian staircases and fireplaces to their origi- nal splendour and will transform the interior with new facilities, including a new bar area, workshop spaces, new dressing rooms and a more accessible lift. A new theatre space will accommodate audiences of up to 270 seated and 400 standing.

The Met’s artistic director David Agnew says the expansion of the auditorium will certainly help the finances of the venue, but adds: “This project is about more than just the building”.

The refurbishment programme has been a catalyst for in- spiring people locally and the fun- draising programme has boosted contacts with other cultural players in the city, from amateur drama companies to the art gallery and Bury 

College which has a strong performing arts course. Met-organised events include everything from community choir to storytelling and samba competitions.

In the past five years, the Met has been busy expanding the programme to include festivals, built up a record- ing studio and organised weekly workshops. The Ramsbottom Music Festival, organised by the Met, brings 11,000 people to the town each year and is now a highlight of the national festival circuit, while the recording studio lets out spaces for creative companies.

Then there’s the English Folk Expo, which is Agnew’s “baby”. More than a festival, and more than an exhibition, it builds on the Met’s established reputation as a folk venue attracting internationally known names and puts stars like Kate Rusby and Seth Lakeman in front of the world’s music bosses.

“Operating within the Greater Manchester arts market means that the Met has to find its own way of bring- ing audiences to Bury” says Agnew. “We are creating something that people here can be proud of – the aim to inspire people locally and make a name internationally”.

The Bury Met is also leading the Smaller Rooms Touring project, a three-year Arts Council England funded programme in five venues in Northern England. The project aims to bring specialist music programming and audience development together, helping smaller venues to take “managed” risks with less popular names.

Nor has the Met been idle while the main building is closed. A host of events has been taking place in site specific venues throughout the town including building a replica prison cell in a shopping centre, where two (ex- con) actors in character invite shoppers to join in a unique immersive experience.

Agnew, who stepped up to the role as artistic director after a stint as marketing manager at the Met, knows more than most the need for arts venues to be sustainable commercially. The outreach theatre will, he hopes, encourage locals to sample what will be an expanded theatre programme, particularly the physical and visual variety when the Met re-opens. “It is more challenging” he admits, but “if we weren’t doing it, nobody would be doing it.”

 

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