The Turnpike caught the tail end of this wave of optimism and renewal. In Leigh and the surrounding area at that time, the last of the pits were closing down – leading Arts Manager Helen Stalker to wonder how such a bold cultural gesture was received. Nonetheless, from Moore’s opening exhibition in 1971 the Turnpike sustained that calibre right up until its last exhibition, by abstract painter Gillian Ayres, in 2013.
In 2013, as part of nationwide programmes of cuts, Wigan Borough Council pulled all funding for the Turnpike and made all staff redundant, moving away from local authority control towards relying on local art groups. This story is not unique to Wigan, but continues to be repeated all over the country. Many of the institutions of the welfare state, established in the post-war years, have been dismantled in the succeeding decades, and replaced by either profit-making private sector bodies or volunteers, a process that has accelerated in recent years. Culture, it seems, is a particularly easy target.
Faced with a lack of money, the Turnpike gallery was run on “tea and coffee sales”. Helen Stalker, then Fine Art Curator at Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, who lives down the road in Lowton, had been a regular visitor to exhibitions at the Turnpike and observed what happened to it over the next couple of years. “It went through lots of manifestations about what it would become”, explains Helen. “It became full of pictures of Johnny Depp and numerous African sunsets!”
After thinking “I’d love to get my hands on it,” Helen got her chance early in 2016, when she applied for a two-year post as Arts Manager, funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. Helen joined the Turnpike in March 2016 after ten years at the Whitworth and five years at Tate Liverpool. Before that, she worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. “It’s an incredible learning curve,” admits Helen. “I’ve come from a well-funded bubble of a fantastic, feminist, forward-thinking organisation but I’m getting a better understanding of the real world climate of arts venues. It’s been a missed opportunity for a fly-on-the-wall documentary!”
Currently, the Turnpike is in transition. The gallery itself is closed to the public, but walk up the stairs and you’re greeted by 1970s screenprints by Ron Kitaj and Patrick Caulfield. Helen has got these prints out of storage from the Wigan and Leigh art collection, formerly based at Drumcroon in Wigan, an art education centre which closed due to cuts in 2011 and has now been demolished.
In January a new independent organisation takes over the Turnpike, with a new board of trustees from across the arts, business and marketing. “We are aiming to be more ambitious, to have more outreach and to bring a creative environment back in,” explains Helen. “It needs real impact and serious change. I’d like a creative hub with the community at the heart, which is both shaped by the town and shapes the town, a coming together and connection point which is cross-collaborative, where people can be inspired by each other.”
In January (14 January-12 March), the Turnpike will be the only northern venue for the Jerwood Drawing Prize, an annual touring show that challenges and expands expectations and understandings of what it means to draw. Helen sees it as an opportunity to hold a celebration, talk to audiences, engage schools and host drawing workshops. Instead of a holding a private view for dignitaries, Helen is keen that schools will be the first to see the exhibition, and children will take part in a “Jerwood within a Jerwood”, making their own decisions about the winners.
In June, the Turnpike will be one of several North West galleries (others include Touchstones, Rochdale and Bury Art Museum) to select work and build a programme from the 2016 Liverpool Biennial as part of its “really exciting” strategic touring fund, which has been established to develop audiences. The idea is that rather than being “parachuted in”, the selected artist comes and engages with the town, for example by working with local teens.
Helen has chosen to show the video work Dream English Kid by Mark Leckey, who grew up in Ellesmere Port, Merseyside “peering into the city”. Incorporating footage of a Joy Division gig he attended as a young man, the film – like his rave and Northern Soul tribute, Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore – explores individual and collective experiences and memory. For the Turnpike incarnation of the work, Helen hopes to draw on the Leigh Rock Festival of 1979, which was organised by Tony Wilson and Bill Drummond due to its location in between Manchester and Liverpool, and played host to bands including Joy Division, OMD and the Teardrop Explodes. “Bus strikes meant only about 200 people went, but it’s achieved mythical status,” explains Helen.
In November the Turnpike will show new and existing work by Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson, including their 2014 installation Song for Coal, originally shown at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and drawing on the material fabric of Leigh by using coal taken from the area in new works. Manchester artist Mary Griffiths will also reference the heritage of the town, from mining and industry to engineering, at an exhibition in 2018.
Another plan for 2017 is for an open call photography competition responding to, reinventing and offering a new vision of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, corresponding with its eightieth anniversary “People are still quite bitter about it around here,” explains Helen. “They want to shake off the book’s legacy.”
The Turnpike’s new programme is part of a bigger ambition to develop a cultural strategy and voice for Wigan. “There is an uneven playing field in the area; access to culture is really low down on the priority list,” explains Helen. “Wigan is a huge borough but it’s not got the riches of Manchester. It’s got next to nothing for its size. The local authority in Manchester understands that the arts play a vital role in the city, but Wigan has a wobbly infrastructure for the arts with nothing underneath it.”
One core part of the gallery’s target audience will be schools; there are three schools in walking distance of the Turnpike. “Regional and local artists have told me that the place made them artists when they were children; we need to develop a culturally aware generation with a voice and raise aspirations for young people,” explains Helen. “We need to bring art and culture of an exceptional standard to them so they understand what it is and that they’re entitled to it – why shouldn’t they have it on their doorstep? People been infantilised and not empowered enough. I want to get people to demand better quality, to open up opportunities.”
To support this, Helen is taking part in the Cultural Educational Leadership programme, a new scheme from Curious Minds with support from the Arts Council. She is being trained as a school governor in order to establish how schools work and what they need to address, from understanding how to reduce the attainment gap, to seeking solutions to the awkward transition between primary and secondary school. As well as running enrichment days and advocating for the arts and education, Helens hopes to extend the school day by offering access to the arts after school.
Despite some scepticism about the demand for contemporary art in the town – Leigh and Wigan are “flashing bright red on the Arts Council map of lack of engagement,” says Helen – she sees the sell-out success of the Z-arts production Sponge at the Turnpike, where 70 per cent of families who attended had never been to the theatre before, as proof “that there is a huge hunger for it, and not just for watercolour landscapes!”
Castlefield’s Gallery's New Art Spaces supports local artists and this year’s Wigan Arts Festival, founded in 2015 as “a provocation and a way of taking control”, will be expanded into the Wigan and Leigh Arts Festival. “There’s some agitation about the town, and art and culture are the catalyst,” says Helen. “Once we’ve got over the barriers at the Turnpike we can really have some fun with it!”
With the reopening of the Turnpike Gallery in 2017, the people of Wigan, Leigh and Greater Manchester will gain a new place to encounter challenging and exciting contemporary art, in one of the region’s architectural hidden gems: here’s to the building’s next 46 years.
To keep up-to-date with news and exhibitions, visit www.theturnpike.org.uk, and follow the Turnpike on Facebook at www.facebook.com/TurnpikeGallery and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/turnpikeleigh.