A distinctive concrete frieze overhangs the entrance to Leigh Library. It was designed for the building’s opening in 1971 by the late William Mitchell, an experimental sculptor and artist from London. His work, which pioneered new ways of working with glass-reinforced concrete and poured resin, can also be found on the grounds of Salford University and in Manchester city centre.
An interview with Shrieking Violet in 2011 paints Mitchell as a thoughtful, self-reflective artist. The writer, Dr Natalie Bradbury, quotes from Mitchell’s website which is now only accessible through internet archives:
“Some of the projects I did were good, some were reasonable, and most were controversial – none, however, broke the bank. These were the products of an exciting time, and one that I don’t think we shall ever see again. It was great to be part of it.”
This sentiment reflects a period of optimism in modernist design in the 1960s and 1970s, which is when most of Mitchell’s work was created. A utopian mindset which meant that, as Leigh’s textile and mining industries suffered through post-war deindustrialisation, the town council thought it prudent to not only build a new library and civic building, but also open The Turnpike art gallery on the second floor.
The idea was that residents could collect their benefits or go about their council business and then spend an hour in an art gallery upstairs. It quickly attracted world renowned artists: Henry Moore’s modernist sculptures opened the programme, which set the tone going forward.
When the first lockdown hit in 2020, a decision was made to prioritise community-focused Activations over the traditional exhibition-led gallery model. With the support of Arts Council emergency funding, The Turnpike commissioned six artists to develop “ambitious and locally relevant programmes of work that would support our community through a period of recovery.”
The move formed part of a wider discussion about the role of arts organisations in communities and the way art is presented to the public. For gallery director Helen Stalker, it was important to remember The Turnpike’s origins during this period of reflection.
“They built this radical, brutalist, concrete space for art and learning in the middle of Leigh when the coal industry was on a massive decline and the future was uncertain,” she says.
We’re chatting on the gallery’s roof, overlooking Leigh Civic Square.
“Someone had the confidence to build this place and I think that’s always in the back of our minds,” she says.
Stalker had worked at the V&A Museum in London and Tate Liverpool before moving to Manchester and taking up a role at The Whitworth, later becoming curator of fine art. “I’d lived in Leigh for a few years while I was at The Whitworth and saw The Turnpike and thought it was fantastic,” she says.
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“I used to come to exhibitions there, and then obviously austerity hit, and culture was one of the things to go out the window,” Stalker explains. The library and council services remained open, but funding was pulled from the gallery in 2013 and the programme was handed over to community groups.
Stalker remembers going to see an exhibition by Gillian Ayres just before it closed: “I suppose that added some real poignancy because we knew that was it.” The following years saw a decline in the quality of exhibitions: Stalker said in a 2017 interview that it “became full of pictures of Johnny Depp and numerous African sunsets.”
Seeing that the gallery was in need of reinvigoration, Stalker joined the trust that was looking after the exhibition programme and worked with them to create a new community interest company to run the art gallery.
“We managed to get the Jerwood Drawing Prize as the first show […] so spent Christmas painting the walls, cleaning the floors, ready for the show,” Stalker says. Later, the gallery worked with the Liverpool Biennial to show Mark Leckey and Mohammed Bourouissa.
“It’s great to look back at the visitor feedback,” Stalker says. “Overall it was really positive: things like ‘thank God it’s back’ and ‘great to see this stuff back in Leigh.’”
There were a few critics. Some people thought the centre should have been given back to the community as a hire space and perceived its new management to be an outside takeover. “There was a bit of a misunderstanding [because] I am a member of the community as well,” Stalker says. “I might have quite a bit of professional experience, but it doesn’t mean I’m not here for the community.”
She points to the gallery’s longstanding learning engagement programme, led by Hannah Gaunt, which works with local people and the fact that community groups were able to use the space in the evening. There was also a concerted effort to keep the exhibition programmed grounded within the local community: Leckey’s Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore is about Northern Soul and very much tied to Wigan.
The inclination toward commissioning community projects was already there before lockdown, but Stalker thinks it’s unlikely the Activations programme would have taken centre stage without the pandemic as a catalyst.
“I spoke to Hannah and thought let’s align our assets and resources into developing this strand of programming which is about connecting artists to the community to make positive social change,” Stalker says.
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One activation is a collaboration between fashion designer Ibukun Baldwin and a Leigh-based community group called Everything Human Rights who support newly arrived ethnic minority migrants. They are hosting workshops at The Turnpike with a view to developing a textile and decorative homeware industry in Leigh amongst migrant communities.
“All these activations are not parachuted in, they’re supposed to be catalysts for long-term change,” Stalker says. “We’ve opened ourselves up to be a testbed, to see where the world is, where art is and where our community is […] moving forward for the next fifty years.”
There is clearly risk involved in the shift in priorities. For some residents, an exhibition-led gallery may have been the preferred model. I put this to Stalker. “I think we’ve not ruled exhibitions out at all, I think that’s something we really need to make clear,” she says.
“We’ve got a fantastic gallery space with a fantastic legacy […] and we take full responsibility for that and we will bring exhibitions back in,” Stalker says. “But for this extraordinary time that we’re currently living through, it’s a window of opportunity to really test out new ideas.”
Similar conversations will be taking place in art galleries across the UK as arts organisations reflect on what to offer the communities they serve. For The Turnpike, it was a time to consult with local people about what they needed from an arts centre as they emerge from the pandemic and reflect on what it means to be a radical organisation as they approach their 50th anniversary.
“I think we’re leaving ourselves open to really testing out what those next fifty years look like,” Stalker says.