Facing inwards and outwards: challenging inequalities within Greater Manchester

It’s not everyday you see municipal banners quoting radical, anti-establishment artists from the 1970s. But if you visit Wigan today, you can see flags echoing Joseph Beuys’ famous provocation, ‘every human being is an artist’. These fluttering invitations draw you into The Galleries - not a gallery space, but a tired 1980s shopping precinct where empty units have been filled with the fruits of a new initiative, Wigan Council’s ‘cultural manifesto’.

Entitled, The Fire Within, this colourful downloadable document, be-jewelled with emojis, sets out an ambitious strategy for culture in the borough over the next 5 years. Each year has been allocated a theme, with 2021 billed as one devoted to ‘Health and Happiness’. There have, of course, been other Manifesto’s in the past that have spoken to the future aspirations of Arts in Health practitioners in the North West region. Clive Parkinson pioneered the first Manifesto for Arts and Health as far back as 2012, gathering together the voices of those “believe the arts are a vehicle for health, well-being and social change.” While a colourful Cultural Manifesto for Well-being, issued in 2017, saw quirky illustrations of circus clowns and marionettes blow the trumpet for Arts in Health in Halton (on behalf of one of Liverpool’s more experimental Clinical Commissioning Groups).

But this latest interpretation of the genre goes well beyond the format of a publication and claims the hybrid status of public event, exhibition and also catalyst for investment. Various stages and spaces exhibit fresh talent (from poet Louise Fazackerley to Wigan Youth Orchestra) while also championing old ‘heroes’ (Wigan painter, Theodore Major, to visiting author, George Orwell). They have all been gathered together by artist-duo, Al Taylor & Al Holmes (known as Al & Al), chosen as curators by external consultants engaged on behalf of the council (Rule of Threes). (1) The Fire Within has been skilfully arranged around a nested set of funding applications which are in the pipeline, soon to be announced.

“Basically, it was an internal political document,” Al & Al tell me. It was their idea to transform it into something more public-facing. “I said to them, (the council) why don’t we make it into a public declaration of intent?” In this way, the artists enlisted their own designer to not only re-conceive the visual look of the text, but also re-think its wider remit. At the launch there was a palpable buzz of excitement amongst the throng who included Chief Exec, Alison McKenzie-Folan, who builds on the work of her predecessor, Donna Hall. Along with staff from the Culture Team, artists mingled companionably with visitors from the town, as well as those who had travelled (like me) from outside of Wigan.

In my role as a PhD student, I am researching the relation of devolution to Arts in Health, with issues around ‘social inequality’ informing both. George Osbourne presented devolution, and it sister-concept of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’, as a way to “re-balance” the national economy. Greater Manchester would act as a “counter-weight” to the dominance of Greater London. Since his own demotion to a less powerful place at the edge rather than the centre, devolution has begun to take effect in GM where social inequalities are becoming ever more rife. (2) The need to address them now extends to how they might be reduced within Greater Manchester and not just in relation to Whitehall or Westminster.

As my fieldwork in Wigan has revealed, The Fire Within builds on the loyalties of local creatives who have long been aware of with how history and inequality inform the current moment, one still shaped by continuing policies of austerity. Their artistic and personal commitments are often hard won, for meagre financial reward, set within persistent legacies of stigma around poverty and class.

The Road to Wigan Pier is credited by some living here with creating an image-problem, one that needs to be overthrown and shaken-off. (3) But Al & Al have chosen to include Orwell as a literary ‘giant’ on whose ‘shoulders' we can stand. On re-reading the text, they found it to be “about a struggle for liberation from the constrictions of class. That sounds old fashioned. But It isn’t. This is still real!” A fuller acknowledgement of social-ills, however difficult, may prove a healthier strategy than one of cover-up or suppression.

AL & AL bring an outward-facing attitude which seeks to complement what is already happening within the borough. They are proud to describe themselves as ‘Wigan-based international artists’. But tensions between the local and the global, insiders and outsiders, the rich and the poor, remain. Wigan will surely be a borough to closely-watch - as GM leaders look to secure ‘inclusive growth’ - to see how this strategy pans out as part of the wider Devo-Manc experiment…

  1. http://www.ruleofthrees.co.uk/people/

  2. https://www.mbs.ac.uk/news/inequalities-across-greater-manchester-laid-bare-in-human-development-study/

  3. As detailed by Helen Stalker, Director of the Turnpike Gallery, in Artists Newsletter:

    https://www.a-n.co.uk/news/new-era-for-turnpike-gallery-leigh-art-and-culture-are-a-catalyst-for-the-town/

The Fire Within runs from 11 May for eight weeks

The Cultural Manifesto is downloadable: http://www.thefirewithin.org.uk

Frances Williams lives in North Wales and is currently undertaking a PhD at Manchester Metropolitan University, due for completion later this year.

Clive Parkinson