Monday, 2 January 2017

The Turnpike, Leigh: A New(/Old) Contemporary Art Gallery for Greater Manchester

In 1971, the mill and mining town of Leigh, Lancashire, located astride the Leeds-Liverpool canal between the two great metropolises of Manchester and Liverpool, hosted an exhibition of modern sculptures by Henry Moore. The likes of Moore’s abstract forms, in materials such as bronze and marble, had never been seen in the town before. Moore’s was the inaugural show at the Turnpike Gallery, in a striking and architecturally innovative modernist building that combined an open-plan library space on ground level with a purpose-built gallery on the upper floor. Like many civic buildings of the time, it incorporated a specially commissioned mural: a large, abstract concrete relief by the industrial designer William Mitchell, in his signature style, mounted on the front of the building. “You can see aspiration in it, bravery and forward-thinking at a hard time for the town,” explains Arts Manager Helen Stalker. “People are astonished when they find out there is a mural on the front by the same artist who designed the doors for Liverpool Catholic Cathedral."
The Turnpike encapsulates the ethos of the post-war period. The two and a half decades that followed the end of the Second World War have been characterised in popular discourse as an era of optimism, when initiatives were put in place to develop the welfare state, expand and modernise the education system, rebuild British towns and cities, and bring art and culture to a wider section of the population. Despite continuing hardships and financial difficulties faced by local and national government after the war, new cultural venues were developed regionally and nationally, and the arts were foregrounded in plans for a better, more democratic and more equal Britain. Many large-scale sculptures were placed in public spaces such as parks, schools and housing estates – including work by Henry Moore, celebrated as perhaps the most important sculptor of the twentieth century. Yorkshire born and bred, Moore was the son of a coal miner and shared these post-war aspirations not just to beautify everyday environments, but to bring art of an exceptional quality to ‘the people’.

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!”
The scale of the challenge became apparent within days of Helen starting her new job. The problems were partly financial, partly physical and partly infrastructural – but also to do with attitudes. “The gallery is as it was in 1971,” explains Helen. “It’s a very precious space but it’s been neglected, misunderstood and not considered so we have to fight for it. Lots of people are sniffy and snigger about it – it’s a lump of concrete in the middle of the beautiful town hall and parish church. It needs a wash. It is full of moths and smells funny when you walk in – it’s not been looked after in the ways it should have been. It’s not moved with the times – for example the ceiling cracks when there are gigs.” Nonetheless, she sees great potential: “The bare bones are there and it’s gorgeous when you look up at the concrete ceilings. We need to refocus people’s eyes on it. The Turnpike is a great space and a great venue and I want to bring that level of quality back.”

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.”
Initially Helen is developing a three-year exploratory programme. Operating in such straitened circumstances it will, of necessity, be enabled by strategic alliances – including partnerships with the Jerwood Foundation, Liverpool Biennial and Impressions Gallery in Bradford – as well as by nurturing friendships with local organisations and institutions.

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 changing exhibitions will be complemented by a multi-purpose studio space, and the Turnpike’s flat roof will be put to use as a Shrangi-La-themed terrace, in reference to Leigh-born James Hilton, who coined the term in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon. Eventually the roof could even be extended upwards into a theatre, as originally planned when the building was designed.

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.”
Helen is mindful of challenges in Leigh, such as underinvestment, above-average rates of drug addiction, alcoholism, self-harm and mental health problems, and low numbers of school-ready five-year-olds. Another issue is isolation and disengagement that goes far beyond the arts. “There are pockets where people of all ages don’t leave their estate,” Helen explains. “They shop there, they go to school there, all their family are there – it’s about coaxing them out.” The reinvention of the Turnpike, therefore, is “not just about having a nice art gallery in town”, but about systematic changes.

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!”
Helen hopes the Turnpike will be a catalyst for taking art out into the town, into its empty buildings and shops. Meanwhile, the town hall has received money from the Heritage Lottery Fund to develop a heritage centre and another cultural venue will be opening nearby. 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.

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