A new sculpture centre has risen from the ashes of controversial library cuts in Bury
Tony Trehy was in a meeting about council cuts when the idea for an internationally important sculpture centre in Bury came about.
© Stephen Walton
“One of the options was to reduce the staffing and scale,” says the Arts Manager for the Lancashire town.
“The result of that would have been the gallery and museum essentially sandwiching a big empty space.
“Because it’s a single complex, the heating, lighting, CCTV, security and the rest of it was tied into our meeting. I said, ‘that’s a description of an art gallery, isn’t it?’”
The void, says Trehy, would likely have become a store. “And then local people would probably kick off, because not only were they reducing the size of the library, but this beautiful Victorian building was being left empty.”
Fortunately, Bury’s councillors appreciate cultural acumen. The Irwell Sculpture Trail runs nearby, and the Art Museum has been part of a group of north-west museums to have toured exhibitions by popular demand in China.
“We developed an international practise, which is unusual for a local authority. People realised that if we continued to develop projects like that we could create a business model to become excluded from the cuts.
“We developed a profile within the borough which meant that there was a real sense that culture was an economic driver and something that the council should be committed to.”
International and local artists share the annual programme of exhibitions, with Trehy given the “luxurious” chance to curate displays of “integrity” and “rigour”, unhindered by the interference he sees some of his colleagues in other authorities hindered by.
“Back in the 90s – when there was all this talk under Blair about providing the best possible service to the local population – we took the view that the local population should be able to see what’s going on in Berlin or Helsinki without having to go there.
“We also thought that doing exciting international projects, if you know how to do it, costs no more than local art exhibitions.
“So we merged the two together. And we’ve become the beneficiaries of the cuts, in a strange way.”
Although the galleries have hosted sculpture before, Trehy has given the discipline a particular focus in order to avoid simply expanding the existing displays. His dual ambition is to create a focal visitor centre for the works dotted around the valley beyond the Sculpture Centre. The start of the fourth Text Festival will launch the venue.
“The combination of opening with the festival and opening a new venue and building the bloody thing has been intense,” he admits, having overseen a fit-out which started in January.
“The actual building work itself isn’t that difficult. We’ve got a beautiful Parquet floor upstairs. The only thing was that over the last 40 years the old library had put a carpet over it.
“We had to strip out a lot of the old library stuff. The floor needed remedial work and polishing and varnishing, stuff like that.
“The walls needed decorating – we’ve turned it into a white box. One of the biggest things was getting a modern lighting system.
“It was probably about 20 grand, something like that. We had to put in a few doors.
“The speed of it was the thing. You can’t really ask artists to do something if the gallery doesn’t exist.
“I think it’s exciting, just on an aesthetic level, because the space itself is absolutely gorgeous. The floor is magnificent, with two glass elements in it which were skylights for the basement below.”
Lawrence Weiner, who Trehy believes to be one of the founders of conceptual art, will take part alongside artists from western Canada and Beijing.
“It’s a big gesture to open with him. If you open a sculpture gallery in the north of England and you open it with what most people won’t recognise as sculpture, that’s quite a challenging thing to do.
“But by the same token, with something that’s as rigorous and sparse as his work, it really shows off the new space.”
David Thorpe, who is concurrently co-curating a show in Moscow, will present Remix in September, and Trehy is in negotiations with Richard Wilson, whose 2003 work, Butterfly, could appear publically for only the second time, featuring part of a Cessna.
“Building a modern aircraft in the middle of a classical space, I think, is going to look extraordinary,” predicts Trehy. “It’s going to be incredibly dramatic.”
For now, he calls Text “satisfying and exhausting.” “The thing about the festival is that it is a globally unique event.
“It ignores artform divisions and showcases and celebrates artists who use language.
“So it could be poets, but it could just as easily be sound artists or light artists who project texts onto buildings.”
The festival began in 2005. “The thing that struck us as being of interest, when it first started, was this question of international poetry having a very slim relationship to international conceptual art or sound art or multimedia.
“They’re all separate worlds with their own followings and expertise. A lot of the strategies being adopted in, say, media art and digital art, are actually very similar to linguistic strategies that are being used in contemporary language poetry or things like that.”
His interest reflects his own lyrical roots. “I was curating the gallery in me day job, but in my own practise I was a published poet,” he says, looking back on his original inspiration.
“Because I was used to international curation I was mostly published outside of England – America, Iceland, Australia.
“I just noticed that I was talking to poets or sound artists and we were having similar conversations as I would do talking to a conceptual artist when I had me curator’s hat on.
“It seemed to me that no-one was asking the question: what is the relationship between these art forms? So that’s what we set out to do.
“There are sound artists who are from the north of England but are better known in Germany. It was quite easy to connect up with people like that.
“A lot of digital artists work with sound artists, so you end up bringing them in. It grew itself, really.”
Text Festival runs May 2-4 2014. Visit http://www.textfestival.com for full details.
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