Warrington brings art and culture to the centre stage

Warrington town centre and Golden Square

Warrington town centre and Golden Square - Credit: Archant

Warrington is no longer in the artistic shadow of its giant neighbours, writes Paul Mackenzie

Maureen Banner, Chairman of Culture Warrington

Maureen Banner, Chairman of Culture Warrington - Credit: Archant

The dodo doesn’t often get the chance to make a comeback but he is taking centre stage in Warrington, helping to prove that culture here is alive and well. He is one of the stars of the new Cabinet of Curiosities exhibition at the town museum which also features many other exotic, unusual and downright quirky pieces from the museum’s collection.

But the new exhibition – which was part funded by a grant of more than £670,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund – isn’t the only example of culture thriving in the former industrial town.

For years Warrington has been dwarfed by the arts giants at either end of the M62 but it is now emerging from the shadows cast by Liverpool and Manchester and taking its turn in the spotlight.

With the economy in a nosedive, Warrington Borough Council took the decision in 2011 to shift responsibility for the arts to a new charitable group. Culture Warrington now operates the town’s flagship venues, organises events across the town and, while still working closely with the council, has established partnerships with many other groups, companies and organisations.

The group’s chairman is retired teacher Maureen Banner. She said: ‘The council could see what was coming and visited a number of places to see how other areas were delivering culture. They came back with the idea that a charity would be a good idea to support all that was going on in the town.

‘I volunteered because I wanted to be a part of the excitement of building a new entity and making it the best it could be and offering the best to people in Warrington.

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‘Our vision from the beginning was to encourage the community to become more involved in culture in Warrington. We didn’t want culture to be thought of as elitist, we wanted to broaden the appeal and to encourage as many people as possible to participate.

‘I have always enjoyed the theatre and reading and poetry and I love the fact that I can come out of a very stressful meeting and go into the art gallery and be transported from the hurly-burly and have time to reflect. There’s one painting in particular, of a mother sewing a communion veil for her child, which I find gives me solace.

‘We are punching above our weight here, we really are and we are making headway, both regionally and nationally. People trust us now to attract a high calibre variety of people to the town.’

That mix of performers attracted to Warrington so far includes comedians as diverse as Ken Dodd, Jason Manford and Ed Byrne, and musical groups such as Mike and the Mechanics, The Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses who rehearsed here before their reunion tour.

Tina Redford, the acting director of Culture Warrington, said: ‘Being sandwiched between Liverpool and Manchester works to our advantage because it gives us a high standard to compete against.

‘The visitor economy in Warrington is in rude health – it’s 15 per cent up year on year and that’s ahead of expectations.

‘That figure is not just about culture of course, it’s about shopping and business too, but culture really is a big part of it.

‘It was a very progressive thing for the council to do and other boroughs in this area and across the country are looking at what we have and what we have achieved and are considering doing something similar.’

Among Culture Warrington’s success stories to date are the contemporary arts festival which has grown since its inception as council-run event, and the Cabinet of Curiosities which opened in January after an 18 month refurbishment of the museum’s old Bird Room.

It now houses some of the more bizarre items from the museum collection – including that dodo – which fits nicely with the hopes of William Beamont, the town’s first mayor who laid the museum’s foundation stone in 1855 and said he wanted the building to contain ‘wonders of nature and art, objects of curiosity and interest from the countries the most remote’.

And Beamont, a philanthropist who also founded the town’s municipal library and has two schools in the town named after him, added as he laid the stone: ‘We seem to see this rising institution… becoming for unborn generations… a just source of pride and satisfaction to every inhabitant of Warrington.’

And Maureen thinks he would be delighted with the museum’s latest development.

She said: ‘The Cabinet of Curiosities is a great addition to the town’s culture and heritage. It’s absolutely wonderful, a real joy. Walking in there is like stepping in to an Aladdin’s cave, you don’t know where to look first there’s so much to see.’