As a humble student intern in 2007, Marisa Draper cut her professional teeth developing creative projects at Cornerhouse, Manchester’s prestigious independent arts and film centre. Recently appointed as head of engagement, Draper now works with the team responsible for delivering HOME, the city’s new £25 million arts centre.

Part of Greater Manchester’s vision to establish itself as an international cultural hub, HOME grew out of the 2012 merger between Cornerhouse and the Library Theatre Company. The ambitious new centre for international contemporary art, theatre, film and books opens its doors for the first time next year, as the cornerstone of Manchester’s proposed First Street cultural quarter. Boasting two performance venues, five cinema screens, a substantial gallery, education rooms, production suites and public spaces, HOME lays claim to being one of the UK’s biggest regional arts complexes, promising to redefine the role of arts centres for the future.

With the countdown under way for the Spring opening, Draper updated Northern Soul on the move. Catching up in the bustling Cornerhouse café, one of Manchester’s best-loved cultural meeting points, I asked about the plans for growing new audiences. Part of the Plus Tate network of leading visual arts organizations, Cornerhouse enjoys a formidable reputation for cutting-edge art, but has never lost its popular appeal. Standing at the busy crossroads of Oxford Street and Whitworth Street West, open night and day, seven days a week, the much loved venue welcomes half a million visitors each year with numbers growing by around 14 per cent on an annual basis. Where do you go from there?

“As audiences grow, HOME will continue to offer the very best in contemporary theatre, visual art and film,” says Draper. “The new purpose-built setting, with improved facilities and an even more convenient location, simply promises to enhance the artistic experience for everyone – artists, audiences and participants alike. But HOME is more than just a coming together of stage and screen, exciting as that prospect sounds. With a renewed focus on engagement and participation, HOME will be known not only as a major centre for artistic creation and co-production, but also as a dedicated space for learning. There are changes ahead, but our shared commitment to high standards will never change.”

Marisa Draper at the Playtime Exhibition, CornerhouseThe success of locally embedded organizations like Cornerhouse and the Library Theatre tends to be rooted in the historical commitment of a loyal and often fairly critical public. How does HOME propose to bring these core theatre, film and visual arts audiences through a process of such radical change?

Draper is keen to stress that HOME intends to grow audiences and engage with participants from across the whole region, by building on existing loyalties while continually reaching out to new communities of interest. Part of the audience development process has been to map out and target particular areas where engagement with the arts is low. Hulme and Moss Side, the neighbourhoods adjacent to HOME, are the kind of communities with which Draper particularly wants to engage. For her, the process of ‘engagement’ means much more than simply inviting people to come and see a show, watch a film or browse through the bookshop. Real community engagement means giving people opportunities to get involved in real decision-making. For example, one of the biggest challenges thrown up by the merger was finding a joint name to replace two of the city’s best loved cultural brands.

“We took the challenge to the community – artists, audiences, local neighbourhoods. And one of the questions we asked was: what kind of qualities should the new arts centre retain? Lots of people were saying how much they valued the informal atmosphere of Cornerhouse and the Library Theatre. They talked about feeling welcome and free to use the spaces to meet with friends and workmates. In other words, people were telling us how much they enjoyed the feeling of being ‘at home’.”

But isn’t there a danger that by introducing a culture of focus groups, questionnaires and consultations, you risk losing the very informality, freedom and spontaneity that people value in cultural spaces like Cornerhouse?

“The truth is that a lot of people still find arts organisations intimidating. We want to welcome everyone, but we recognise that everyone doesn’t necessarily feel ‘at home’ in a contemporary arts environment. If we are serious about trying to engage people with high quality arts, we can’t confine ourselves to particular groups. Engagement sounds like a managerial buzz word, but it actually describes a way of breaking down barriers, extending and building new relationships.”

The last ten years has seen a revival of interest in collaborative and socially engaged practice, with artists coming out of the studio to experiment with new ways of co-creating with audiences, communities and institutions. Cutting across the boundaries of art forms and hierarchies, Draper’s role places her and the communities she works with right at the heart of these emerging creative currents.

She says: “This is definitely a job where I am challenged all the time. I work in a very creative space, where we are encouraged to take risks and push the boundaries.”

Very much in tune with the zeitgeist, HOME’s decision to kick off its debut season with a socially engaged, site specific production like Angel Meadow was, nevertheless, a bold statement of its ambition and willingness to take risks. Inspired by the 19th century experience of Irish migrants escaping poverty for a better life in industrial Manchester, Angel Meadow took audiences on a journey across time and space to the city’s dark and dangerous past, winning huge critical acclaim, while setting the bar good and high for future collaborations between artists and communities.

For Draper, her own career journey exemplifies the way Cornerhouse builds organisational strength through investing in the talent, creativity and ambition of all the people it works with. Some seven years ago, a student film internship gave her the break she needed to get a foot in the door, where Cornerhouse gave her time, space and resources to develop ideas and take those first important steps towards building a successful career. Marisa Draper

“It’s all about mutual benefits, being supported and above all being trusted. But first of all, people need opportunities so they can discover their talent and demonstrate what they can do. I feel privileged and that’s something I want to share with all the people I work with now and in the future.”

There are plans to further develop HOME’s informal Young Creatives programme, working with local schools and colleges to actively spot and help nurture new talent. In opening up its vast reserves of knowledge, expertise and networks, HOME wants to help create meaningful opportunities for local 15 to 25-year-olds.

“It’s about sustainability,” explains Draper. “Supporting a new generation of talent and preparing them for work in the creative industries. It may take some years to roll out but we are aiming to develop high quality, work-based learning, which supports people all the way from entry level. We are well placed to succeed. Everything we do here is lead by creative industry professionals. We understand what the industry wants.”

From the Whitworth Art Gallery’s re-launch to the Manchester International Festival, 2015 clearly marks the start of a very bright future for Manchester’s arts scene. But Marisa Draper is unlikely to rest on her laurels.

“This is not just about Manchester or Greater Manchester or even the North West. HOME is part of a momentum for change that is shifting the cultural centre of gravity to the North. We are raising a serious challenge to London. Who knows where it will end.”

By Pauline Hadaway

Images by Chris Payne