From House To HOME


Manchester’s much loved Cornerhouse is moving, and fans are worried. Sara Jaspan speaks to the arts venue’s artistic director about the multi-million pound upgrade and whether its loyal audience is ready for such a big change…

For anyone with even a passing interest in art or film, a city’s independent cinema can be one of our first points of reference. Whether it becomes our ‘local’ and consistently draws us away from the multiplex depends on more than the content of the film schedule. It is to do with a venue’s role within the complex cultural ecology, and… a feeling, a personality, a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’.

Manchester’s Cornerhouse is a place to hang out and fill an unoccupied half-hour, where people from a range of creative backgrounds and disciplines are drawn. It is the site of countless interesting conversations, is both welcoming and aspirational, and attracts fond love and respect accordingly.

This has remained the case since it first opened in 1985. Today, nearly 30 years on, Cornerhouse is Manchester’s ‘international centre for contemporary visual art’ and asserts a specific role for itself: commissioning politically engaged, academically grounded new work by artists of diverse backgrounds and stature, often as part of festivals and collaborative projects.

“The powers that be have decided its time to shake up and move on. Come Spring 2015, Cornerhouse will be stepping-up its game”

Since merging with the Library Theatre in 2012, it now ‘does’ theatre as well. But how much can one, rather lovely, early 1900s building contain? And for how long can so many balls remain within the air? Not much and not very, it seems.

Not that the balls are being dropped – instead, the powers that be have decided its time to shake up and move on. Come Spring 2015, Cornerhouse will be stepping-up its game, packing-up its bags and be moving to a brand-new multi-million pound purpose-built development, called HOME.

From here it will operate under an equally shiny new identity, tantalisingly marketed as ‘a new HOME for curiosity seekers, for lovers of the dramatic, the digital and the deeply engaging; for radicals and reciprocators’.

Complete with five state-of-the art cinema screens, a 500-seat theatre, a flexible studio space, 500m2 white-cube gallery, digital production and broadcast facilities, and (not to forget Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) a new bar, café and restaurant, it is an impressive upgrade. But a high price to pay in exchange for Cornerhouse’s prime Oxford Road location and the iconic Tatler News Cinema. Will the audience move on, too?

Cornerhouse, Manchester, as it has been since 1985. The organisation is due an upheaval in 2015

The announcement has prompted scepticism among many, the consensus being: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The name, HOME, seems to protest too much. We are being asked to overlook this tremendous change, to ignore the possibility that in the transition Cornerhouse may lose the intangible qualities that we love about it.

Yet, you cannot resist progress. As Sarah Perks, Artistic Director (and newly appointed Professor of Visual Arts at Manchester School of Art) concedes: “Cornerhouse isn’t broke, but there’s always room for improvement”.

The current building isn’t without its challenges. The arrangement of the gallery spaces, spread across three floors, is far from ideal and can result in a slightly disjointed experience. Despite the curatorial team’s best efforts, the non-uniform, triangular architecture limits the scale of the exhibitions. Similarly, though charming, the cinema screens do not offer the most modern film-going experience.

‘Purpose-built’ may inspire dread, but building from scratch is not without virtue, and the experience and expertise of Cornerhouse staff has played a key role in shaping the new venue’s design. The vision behind HOME is to create a space more suited to a collaborative, cross-medium and cross-disciplinary approach; where each art form can enrich, enliven and inform the other.

“Despite the early rumblings of discontent, Sarah assures: “I have real faith in the loyalty of Cornerhouse’s audience”"

Despite the early rumblings of discontent, Sarah assures: “I have real faith in the loyalty of Cornerhouse’s audience. We’ve always felt a great deal of trust and support for what we do here and, though it’s a big change, I think people are ready to see it work”.

Things are already off to a strong start with a warm-up 2014 programme of site-specific performances taking place across the city. The immersive Angel Meadows (10-29 June), held in an old warehouse in Ancoats, met with wild success; while tickets for Romeo & Juliet (10 September-10 October), in Manchester’s recently restored Victoria Baths, have already sold out.

For Cornerhouse’s closing exhibition, Playtime (22 November 2014-19 March 2015), nine artists, filmmakers and musicians will make a series of works that pay tribute to the old building and respond to Jacques Tati’s 1967 cinema masterpiece of the same name; concerned with the themes of architecture, memory, space and site. These works will spill out of the main galleries into the rest of the building and onto the street.

“It is hoped that HOME will help attract bigger artists to the city”

In addition to the existing Cornerhouse and Library Theatre regulars, Sarah highlighted the efforts already being made to reach out to a new wave of visitors through a series of targeted community and youth engagement programmes. This seems especially apt given that much of the funding behind HOME has come from Arts Council England and Manchester City Council. Similarly, it is hoped that HOME will help attract bigger artists to the city, elevating and complementing Manchester’s existing cultural offer.

Unfortunately, Sarah could not be persuaded to reveal details of the Easter weekend opening party and programme of 2015, but did promise that it will set the stage for all that is to follow – underpinned by the ambition to offer something novel, inspiring and fresh to the city.

Cornerhouse is close to the hearts of many and will be sorely missed. But with HOME, the Whitworth Art Gallery’s autumn re-opening and Manchester International Festival (MIF) 2015 all on the cultural horizon, it looks like we have a rather interesting few months ahead.

Sara Jaspan

Images: Top: the new HOME. Centre: Current Cornerhouse building as it stands, since 1985

HOME opens at First Street, Manchester in Spring 2015:

HOME’s new season of events opens Weds 10 September 2014 with Romeo and Juliet at Victoria Baths, and continues Friday 17 October 2014 with the Best of BE Festival, and Weds 22  October 2014 with The Events. See website for full programme!

Posted on 02/09/2014 by thedoublenegative