Manchester Matters: Manchester Culture on the Rocks?

Posted on April 24, 2012


Yesterday was World Book Night, a celebration of literary culture and encouragement for wider reading amongst the public. Special events were organised up and down the country, including a special World Book Night celebration with local authors at the Deansgate branch of Waterstones.

Yet, there were three bits of bad news that continued to cast a shadow over the cultural heart of Manchester. Firstly, the much unwelcome news that the Cornerhouse will not only lose its location, but also its identity when it moves to the First Street complex in 2014. Secondly, the unfortunate demise of the Not Part Of festival that ran last year and finally, the demise of Channel M.

The Cornerhouse on the corner of Oxford Road and Whitworth Street is one of the iconic success stories of Manchester. Originally a furniture store, it was converted in 1985 and has hosted countless arthouse films, art exhibitions and special events over its 30+ year history. In 2010, it announced it was joining forces with the Library Theatre Company in a Manchester and Arts Council funded move to the new cultural quarter currently being developed on the First Street complex.

The move to the First Street complex appears to be motivated by necessity. The building needs urgent renovation work doing to it. I don’t think many would dispute that modernising the complex is neccesary, but I think many would dispute the wholesale move to a new cultural quarter. Yet despite funding being down for the Cornerhouse, visitor numbers were apparently on the rise over 2009/2010. Initial artist impressions of First Street in my view look like another completely faceless glass and chrome monstrosity like MediaCity UK.

Part of the whole appeal of the Cornerhouse was its unique location as a place to meet, unwind, relax, visit galleries or movies. The loss of this brand is sad for the city. It already feels like the shell of the building has been discarded like a snake’s skin, certainly Cornerhouse Director Dave Moutrey isn’t ‘sentimental’ about the building and the official Twitter feed is a bit sniffy about the state of the current building. It’s a great shame that no-one seems to know, or care about what will happen to the building. Many have a sneaking suspicion it will become another bar or supermarket. I, personally, think that the Cornerhouse is dead already if these are the current attitudes. It feels like we’re supposed to be jubilant about the new building, but it doesn’t look iconic, or even Mancunian (or I suppose it does in that it looks like any other office block down Deansgate or Spinningfields). The only thing it bears a resemblance to is Urbis – and look what happened to that.

More distressing is the movement and renaming of the Library Theatre company. For 58 years, the Library theatre company has had countless famous alumni starring  in some of the most classic and innovative plays to take to the Manchester stage. I fear that the movement and renaming will mean it loses its strong, universally known identity. Both these iconic fixtures of Manchester’s cultural scene have acquired stellar reputations. I hope that First Street is fitting enough to sustain these iconic parts of our city and be true to the vision of what the Cornerhouse and Library Theatre Company were set up to do. The sad reality is that most Mancunians probably aren’t aware that the Cornerhouse is to close and will only miss it when it’s gone. Whether that pang and the content of First Street will be enough to galvanise people into going remains to be seen. And no doubt the new name will sound like something that has walked off The Apprentice.

In other sad news, the Not Part Of festival is no more – for the forseeable future. For regular readers, you will know I am an ardent supporter of fringe events. Over two weeks in July last year several comedy, art, drama and workshop events took places over a diverse range of events all across Greater Manchester. Some absolute gems are performed at festivals like Not Part Of and it is a shame to see that the organisers are unable to continue. I’m sure many will wish them well with bringing up their little one and thank them for bringing together so many acts and venues to creatively pool their resources.

Finally, after a long and lingering demise, Channel M ceased broadcasting last week after 12 years. Under Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt’s plans, 10-20 new local television stations are projected to begin broadcasting in 2015. Many might have maligned the station for its lack of content, but it did nurture and foster new bands on The Great Northern Music Show and was the home award-winning short film show Reel North with production help from students and staff at the University of Salford. It was also the latter day home of Frank Sidebottom and hosted the City Life Comedian of the Year. If talent such as this can’t sustain, or in some unfortunate cases find an audience, then Jeremy Hunt’s plans may never come to fruition.

All in all, it is a shaky time for Manchester’s cultural atmosphere. Yet there is good news –  the upcoming Greater Manchester Fringe looks like it is going to build on the traditions of festivals in Manchester and create a permanent, and independent space in Manchester’s cultural calendar for us all to enjoy. With a month’s worth of excellent events to rival the Edinburgh fringe across nine venues across Manchester and Salford, it will further strengthen the already fertile and growing independent cultural side of Manchester.