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Wigan's cultural manifesto aims to transform the town centre's fortunes through art

PUBLISHED: 00:00 15 July 2019

'The Fire Within' arts installation at The Galleries shopping centre. Theodore Major's monster paintings

'The Fire Within' arts installation at The Galleries shopping centre. Theodore Major's monster paintings

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Wigan's new manifesto for change puts art and culture at the centre of the town's future

'The Fire Within' arts installation at The Galleries shopping centre. Artists Al Taylor (left) and Al Holmes with Wigan Council CEO, Alison McKenzie-Folan and Head of Culture, Georgina Bentley'The Fire Within' arts installation at The Galleries shopping centre. Artists Al Taylor (left) and Al Holmes with Wigan Council CEO, Alison McKenzie-Folan and Head of Culture, Georgina Bentley

The impact on town centres of out-of-town retail parks and online shopping is well-known. As they have proliferated, High Streets have suffered, sometimes terminally. Towns and cities across the country have tried all manner of tactics to lure people back, with varying degrees of success. And now Wigan is taking a bold new approach. The town has launched a cultural manifesto which aims to transform the town centre's fortunes through art.

The manifesto was written by internationally-renowned artists Al Taylor and Al Holmes, AKA Al and Al. They have exhibited work around the globe, in London, Liverpool, Manchester, New York, Beijing and they now add Wigan to their CV.

This is a homecoming for the pair who are originally from Prestwich and Bolton and who now live in Standish.

They began working together when they left St Martin's College and have forged an international reputation for creativity and innovation in film and visual arts.

Wigan's Heritage & Mining Monument committee members; Tom Walsh, Sheila Ramsdale, Margaret Settle and Ray Hinds by the proposed site near Wigan Life CentreWigan's Heritage & Mining Monument committee members; Tom Walsh, Sheila Ramsdale, Margaret Settle and Ray Hinds by the proposed site near Wigan Life Centre

And now they are showcasing their work - and that of other artists based in and around Wigan - through The Fire Within, which is the result of a pioneering collaboration between the artists and Wigan Council.

The manifesto was launched in May with an exhibition on the top floor of The Galleries shopping centre which put interactive displays, performances and exhibitions into empty shop units. Footfall in the shopping centre was up by about 2,000 on the opening weekend.

'Investment outside galleries and museums can help us to reach people who don't access culture,' said Al Taylor. 'Great art comes out of great conversations and we have begun a great conversation around the borough. It's a very exciting time. We want to articulate Wigan's importance to the nation and we know that people everywhere are talking about what is happening here.

'I am from Prestwich originally and I used to think that Wigan was something of a cultural backwater, but I have found so much here.

A gold funeral mask brought to Wigan from Egypt by  Sir John ScottA gold funeral mask brought to Wigan from Egypt by Sir John Scott

'We used to have a studio in an east London warehouse but we had to move when the Olympic park was built - artists are being squeezed out of areas in cities and we want this to be the place they move to. If people are making and exhibiting art here, people will come to see it. People who visit galleries like to eat in nice restaurants and a place starts to get a buzz about it.'

The manifesto was written after a consultation with people across the town and Al Holmes added: 'When we presented the manifesto to the council cabinet they gave us a round of applause. It has been a magical process. It's all been very fluid. The council have been so supportive. It has been a beautiful collaboration.

'The chief executive of Arts Council England was here for the opening and he was blown away by what has happened here. We are bringing people together and we are raising expectations of what Wigan can do. There are so many benefits - shops reported increased footfall, there are smiles on people's faces and their health and wellbeing will be improved.'

The exhibition in The Galleries - which will be open until at least early August - kick-starts a five year plan and includes work by Al and Al, specially-commissioned art by young local artists, exclusive pieces by Theodore Major which never been displayed before and treasures from the borough's collection, including a golden Egyptian funeral mask.

Council chief executive Alison McKenzie-Folan said: 'We have changed our approach over recent years to be more innovative. We have less of a paternalistic relationship with the people of Wigan now.

'This work will help to position Wigan Borough as a culturally thriving district in the North West and will provide fantastic economic benefits as we know culture plays a big part in regenerating areas.

'We do have a significant cultural offer in Wigan Borough but with The Fire Within we have something much more inclusive that will inspire residents and visitors alike to choose our town over cities like Manchester and Liverpool. And it's already happening. Artists and groups are heading to our borough because we're ready to be bold and ambitious.'

* For more information, go online to thefirewithin.org.uk.

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