Once the driving force of Lancashire’s booming textile trade, Bury’s enterprising spirit lives on in its remarkable revival as a cultural and commercial hub.
Where many Northern towns still struggle getting to grips with post industrial decline, Bury takes it cue for success from the rich legacy of its past. From the 600-year-old ‘World Famous’ Bury Market to The Rock, Bury’s state-of-the-art shopping and leisure complex, it’s impossible to visit the town without being struck by its winning combination of cultural sensibility and no nonsense business savvy.
This month, midway through an ambitious eight year development strategy, Bury has cause to celebrate another major cultural boost, following a decision by Arts Council England to award £3 million to The Met, one of the town’s liveliest and best-loved venues.
Northern Soul caught up with organisation’s director, David Agnew, to learn about The Met’s plans for modernising its impressive neo-classical building. With the main focus on bringing in new audiences, there has been a tendency over the years for The Met to simply add bits on, as and when required. However, a more strategic approach is needed in order for it to realize its ambitions for presenting high quality international and regional work to increasingly diverse audiences. We asked Agnew about the challenges of future-proofing a building, which holds such an important place in the history of town.
“Derby Hall goes back to the 1840s, but it’s also been a big part of The Met’s story for three decades,” says Agnew. “Over and above festival audiences, The Met welcomed 38,000 people through its doors last year. We know from audience feedback that visitors have a huge emotional attachment to the place. For artists and audience alike, the building can play as big a part in the cultural experience as the performance. We absolutely want to keep that.”
The strong emphasis on visitor experience is not surprising given Agnew’s professional background – he first joined The Met in 2001 as marketing manager. However, he is quick to point out that The Met’s approach to audience development is far from formulaic.
“Being audience-focused has to be part of a critical dialogue. As an arts organization, we continually innovate, take risks and look for ways to bring people along with us. Our audiences treasure the organization but they are not uncritical. That’s why musicians love playing here. It’s an enlivening experience to find an audience that really wants to engage and listen.”
While artists and audiences provide the bedrock of support, Agnew has been phenomenally successful tying The Met’s ambitions into wider development strategies. Supported by local government, cultural and business partners, The Met has developed new projects like the Ramsbottom Music Festival and the Homegrown English Folk Festival, all of which significantly raise the profile of the region, attracting audiences, artists and music industry professionals from all over the world.
Agnew’s entrepreneurial flair was formally acknowledged earlier this year when he became one of the recipients of the prestigious Breakthrough Fund, awarded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation to ‘outstanding individuals’ working as cultural leaders. With two major funding awards under its belt, Agnew is confident of The Met’s ability to put its plans into action.
“We’ve always been known for punching above our weight, but last year, when the team was working flat out fundraising, I don’t think any of us dared to dream that our plans would come to fruition as they have done. The Arts Council award allows us to invest in the building, but the Breakthrough Fund gives me the added bonus of developing my artistic vision in tandem with the business planning.”
Agnew is keen to stress that sitting back and resting on its laurels will never be part of The Met’s philosophy. While the Arts Council’s £3 million is important, it is only a first step towards realising a bigger £4.6 million campaign, already underway.
“There will never come a point when the Met stops planning and growing,” he says. “We exist to inspire the people of this region with high quality international work and enriching arts activities. We want to become more successful and self-sufficient, so we can work even more effectively and reach even higher.”
Images by Chris Payne
For more information on The Met or to find out about events and workshops visit www.themet.biz or phone the ticket office on 0161 761 2216.