Council putting culture centre stage in the borough

An exhibition at The Fire Within HQAn exhibition at The Fire Within HQ
An exhibition at The Fire Within HQ
The local authority has hailed its recent focus on the arts as a massive success so far.

The local authority is currently part-way through its ambitious five-year plan to celebrate and strengthen the arts across the borough.

It says the strategy has brought in £3.1m of investment and put Wigan on the map among national arts institutions.

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It is now planning to kick on with its strategy this year after 2020 turned into a year when the arts faced colossal challenges due to Covid-19.

Work taking place at Leigh Town HallWork taking place at Leigh Town Hall
Work taking place at Leigh Town Hall

The focus on culture based around The Fire Within, both the exhibition spaces in The Galleries and the work going on in communities across the borough, has not been unanimously praised with criticism at a recent council meeting and accusations of money being wasted, but the council is keen to highlight the numerous benefits.

Coun Chris Ready, portfolio holder for communities and culture, said: “In terms of funding we’ve never had anything like this before. The likes of Arts Council England are now sitting up and talking about the arts in Wigan.

“We’ve got to embrace culture within our town centres moving forward. M&S and BHS have gone and we’re going to lose Debenhams. They are not coming back.

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“It has been a massive success in the last 18 months and we’re going to keep on rolling. We’re bringing funding in. These are recognised organisations, they don’t just dish money out. We have to prove to people what we can do.”

Lesley O’Halloran, assistant director of customer services and culture, said: “Culture has an economic return and also benefits health and wellbeing. If we are going to support the economy culture absolutely has to be part of it.

“In 18 months I think we’ve got ourselves on a tremendous footing. When we started there was no confidence at somewhere like the Arts Council in the borough around its ambitions for culture. We needed to showcase the talent in the borough and really make a mark.”

The cultural manifesto has proven almost spookily prescient in its themes, with the current Digital Wigan focus at a time when the pandemic has moved more activities online than ever.

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Similarly, the next topic is Health and Happiness when discussions of mental health and isolation are in the headlines due to the impact of staying at home and being locked down under Covid restrictions.

A large programme of activities across the borough is being planned from summer, with the local authority well aware of how people have been struggling.

The pandemic led to Wigan Council last year stepping up to support artists, eventually giving out almost £47,000 to 37 creatives.

The local authority also organised the distribution of 1,800 kits for young people in lockdown and ran reminiscence projects in care homes.

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Covid-19 also meant The Fire Within HQ has been shut at times and visitor numbers have been restricted, but the council expressed delight that around 20,000 people have been to the galleries.

The biggest project for 2021 is on the other side of the borough with the reopening of Leigh Town Hall as the new home of the archives along with museum and exhibition spaces due in spring.

Georgina Bentley, the council’s lead for culture, said: “There’s a real focus on Leigh this year. We’ll be engaging with residents in lots of cultural activities. We want to host a full programme of activities including a festival.”

Ms O’Halloran also underlined this by speaking in glowing terms about the Leigh Spinners Mill, saying she hoped to have conversations about the work going on there with arts, culture and leisure activities, and about Leigh Film Society, expressing the hope the Saturday matinee family films in The Fire Within HQ will be able to resume soon.

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The heritage side of culture across the borough is being developed, including at the mill and the Lancashire Mining Museum.

Young residents are also at the heart of the plans.

A project which it is hoped can be picked up again saw almost 300 children visit The Fire Within before lockdown and work has also gone on in schools across the borough.

Ms Bentley said: “From a young person’s perspective the benefits of getting involved in culture are massive. It helps education attainment, with children engaged with culture doing better in maths and English.

“However, we also need to make sure all our residents are gaining the benefits of culture. It’s about the economy, skills, jobs. It can be integrated with everything we do as a council and everything we need as a borough.”

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So far around 40 local artists have had their work displayed as part of the various exhibitions at The Fire Within HQ curated by acclaimed Wigan-based duo Al and Al.

Names from the borough’s artistic past have also been given a new lease of life, with a particular focus put on talent such as Theodore Major and James Lawrence Isherwood. The council has also invested in The Turnpike Centre in the middle of Leigh, saying it wants numerous cultural centres around the borough.

The cultural strategy also means the council now works far more closely with arts organisations than it did previously, with Ms O’Halloran saying this year it had helped individuals and groups with funding applications.

Funding is also being sought to put on activities around the heritage zones in King Street and Tyldesley and support Believe in Leigh.

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