The arts and culture in Manchester have long been grounded in industrialists’ philanthropy and generosity, which have helped to nurture considerable audiences for art, literature and music, audiences who have understood that the arts have a role to play in the ways in which the city has been continuously transformed. The city’s history of philanthropic might suggest that the arts are a secondary pleasure, but the intensity and achievement of artists working in the city indicates instead that the arts are as much a necessity, for their creators and their audiences, as any of the other areas in which Manchester has been a pioneer.
The first painting the city’s cotton millionaires bought for the as-yet-unbuilt Manchester Art Gallery was a portrait of the black actor, Ira Aldridge, and when the gallery did open its doors in 1882, its collection featured the work of every leading Victorian artist. The public could see the collection for free and attend lectures by John Ruskin which explained how best this art could be understood.
Manchester’s literary heritage is increasingly recognised as being central to our understanding of the development of the novel and the opening, earlier this year, of the new Elizabeth Gaskell House museum opens a window on the life of a working writer in this city, a writer who was engaged with many of the leading lights of the progressive movements in the city.
When Chopin visited Manchester towards the end of his career it was at the behest of an industrialist, the Schwabe family behind Middleton’s calico printing factory, and the Polish pianist’s visit has recently been marked by a statue on Deansgate. On his visit, Chopin was in the poor health that led to his death in Paris a year later and he advised his Irish composer friend George Osborne that he should not bother attending the performance in what is now the Midland Hotel. Osborne ignored the advice and later wrote that “unknown to him, in a remote corner of the room I helped to cheer and applaud him.” (In his one other Manchester performance, Chopin would walk offstage mid-performance: as he wrote later to a friend “I was going to attack the march when, suddenly, I saw the cursed creatures that one lugubrious night appeared to me at the monastery rising from the case of the piano. I had to go out…”)
Now another George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has granted the arts in Manchester £78million towards the creation of a “large-scale ultra-flexible arts space” which will also house the Manchester International Festival, and will be a short walk from the new theatre and cinema complex Home, due to open next year. As the editors of the Manchester Review we welcome this development: as we know, and is clear throughout Issue 13, which ranges from Chris Killen’s wonderfully funny and contemporary account of university teaching to Will Harris’s re-setting of the early twentieth-century war poet Edward Thomas, there is no shortage of good literary work emerging and being published in the northwest. At a time when the Manchester Literature Festival has grown so successfully and Manchester’s largest literary publisher, Carcanet, has scooped the most recent TS Eliot, Forward and National Book Awards (an unprecedented triple crown for a publisher), we hope that the directors of these enormous capital projects will also find the time to plot out ways to engage the city’s existing talent and to nurture the next wave of writers, artists, composers and performers who will emerge here and make these new spaces their own.