An A to Z-arts approach to culture in the city
Z-arts is a ‘creative space for young people’ that formed in 2000 with an emphasis on providing participatory activities. Their mission is to ‘inspire and enable generations of young people from Manchester and beyond to use creativity to maximise their potential.’ The organization occupies a 60 room multi-art form, multi-space arts venue in Hulme and, in addition to providing a cultural hub for local residents, the organisation is also home to some of Manchester's creative performance organisations, such as contemporary performance group Hab who last year staged Emergency 2014 at the centre, dance theatre artists and educators Company Chameleon and many more. Visiting arts organisations regularly hold events and performances at Z-arts, such as the 2014 Christmas play by Slung Low.
One thing that makes the centre unique is its remarkable building, which seems to encourage a kind of vertical integration of skilled practitioners, new productions and the exhibition of work. This demonstrates to those just starting out in creative careers that there are a range of options for working in the creative industries, while also generating some of its income from its tenants. The building also attracts interest from Manchester historians and it is worth taking a moment here to consider the building's former life.
For the first 100 years, the Zion Institute in Hulme was a large congregational church. Originally paid for by a bequest from Enriqueta Rylands, wife of the philanthropist John Rylands, who lived in the former Borough of Stretford (now part of Trafford) just west of Hulme, the elaborate red brick building was built in 1911 and is even mentioned in Pevsner’s 'The Buildings of England'. It has sixty rooms, which offered the local community at the time a variety of activities while its church services were attended by up to 1000 people (see http://www2.mmu.ac.uk/research/ref/uoa30-zion-case-study).
Subsequent slum clearance and phases of redevelopment changed the area during the course of the 20th century. Leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, considers Hulme to be a pioneering project for what has now become common-place in regeneration thinking; for him it represents the first prolonged attempt in the battle to re-energise inner-city neighbourhoods.
Although these and doubtless many other social changes contributed to the church losing its congregation in the 1960s, the Halle Orchestra and Choir and Northern Ballet Theatre (now Northern Ballet) made the church their home for a few years, after which there was a long transition period that eventually saw the building reopen to the local community as the Zion Arts Centre in 2000. It now contained a theatre, gallery, radio studio and recording studio within the centre.
In 2011 the building marked its centenary with 33 events inspired by the findings of a big research project, Zion 100, which won the first Manchester community history award. Local libraries should have copies of a book entitled Zion 100: a history of a building in Hulme, written by Terry Wyke and Sharon Forrest and produced in 2011 in association with Manchester Metropolitan University. The centre also keeps its own archive and we're told that people still occasionally drop off 'bits of history' there.
Fast forward to now and the Centre has been rebranded Z-arts after a lengthy consultation with the local community. With so many rooms and resources it is still a major cultural hub but now additionally hosts a cafe and offers temporary activities like Zumba workouts, screen printing, open mic sessions and after-school art workshops, film club and dance classes for young people. A subsidised membership for Bright Sparks funded by Children in Need makes these activities affordable for all families.
At Z-arts there's a particular orientation towards young people and families, which is reflected in their mission statement. Through a strong Education and Learning programme the organisation believes that supporting young people’s creativity is an essential route to self-esteem, confidence and long-term wellbeing. This is why Z-arts also coordinate the Manchester Family Arts Network, which includes partner venues The Edge, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester Museum, The Bridgewater Hall, The People’s History Museum, and the Audience Agency.
The organisation's present CEO Liz O’Neill has been in post for five years, in which time she has developed the centre's own performance programme. As well as taking care of Z-arts, she is also Chair of Big Imaginations, a region-wide group of venues and promoters dedicated to bringing quality children’s theatre to the North West. Last year’s ‘Big Imaginations’ festival at Z-arts was part of the national Family Arts festival that takes place around October half term, connecting venues all over the country.
All my working life I’ve thought that the arts should be intrinsically valued and available for every child growing up. It's unfortunate that we have to keep making the case, when the benefits are so obvious.
Liz says she sees her role as “raising the bar for what children and family performance might be…making sure it is as high a quality as it can be”. Activities at Z-arts have a particular emphasis on participation and engagement with culture, or as Liz puts it “widening reach around communities, reaching those who don’t engage in the arts”. The centre's strategic approach means that every age group is represented and one of the centre's stated aims is to support young people to use creativity to reach their potential in any way, raising aspirations and improving life skills along with creative skills. These are the priorities they must deliver on as one of Manchester City Council's strategic organisations but they are also in step with national drives to value the arts and widen engagement and participation, such as the What Next? movement. Liz agrees that these priorities are important, but in an ideal world such a case for the arts wouldn’t need to be made at all. "I think it’s great that there is some brilliant advocacy work for arts and education. All my working life I’ve thought that the arts should be intrinsically valued and available for every child growing up. It's unfortunate that we have to keep making the case, when the benefits are so obvious."
The difficulty in making a social rather than economic case for ongoing investment into local cultural infrastructures often comes from how to measure outcomes and how to grasp and value the benefits of such work. Conventional evaluation techniques cannot overcome this problem, because as Liz puts it “that’s then about tracking children, particularly young children over a number of years and saying “remember that project you did 5 years ago that lasted for months, what value did that have?”
She also accepts that there's a certain amount of hype about Manchester's cultural offer, something that feeds into the increasing commercialisation of the city and skews the cultural agenda away from sustainable community projects. Grassroots organisations are often invisible in the grand statements about creative cities or tourism in the city. Liz has spent equal amounts of her life working in the arts in either Liverpool or Manchester and witnessed the same sidelining of community and creative engagement, but notes “it's not just about Manchester, I think it’s a national cultural shift, it goes back to being driven by economics... It’s a national cultural agenda that’s shifted”.
There's a certain amount of hype about Manchester's cultural offer, something that feeds into the increasing commercialisation of the city and skews the cultural agenda away from sustainable community projects. Grassroots organisations are often invisible in the grand statements about creative cities or tourism in the city.
Yet she believes that Manchester City Council does value its grass-roots culture and feels that the city is multi-cultural or diverse in an integrated way that is genuinely welcoming to ‘outsiders’. “Manchester is where I've ended up” she says, but adds “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
Z-arts has a number of key assets: its niche work, its building and the support it gets from larger cultural institutions, such as Manchester Metropolitan University. Greater Manchester prides itself on its credentials as a creative city and is widely acclaimed as a cultural tourist destination. Without a doubt there is a buzz that many across the city recognise as contributing to the city’s uniqueness, distinctiveness and charm. Underpinning the gloss, however, are many smaller community arts organisations, part of the fabric of the cultural ecology of the city that are generally less visible and usually less valued. Yet it is here that the opportunities and challenge around community participation and the role of arts and culture as agents of change are often played out. This raises questions over how the city can support grassroots cultural activities as part of a shift to a more sustainable urban transition.
This article was written by Laura Ager. It draws on a Z-arts profile and interview with Liz O’Neill originally produced by Karen Smith, as part of the AHRC Cultural Intermediation project @cultintermed. For further information please see visit: http://www.z-arts.org/
What’s ‘The Alternative?’
Find out here about the background, purpose and content of ‘The Alternative?’ series of articles on Platform as part of the Greater Manchester Local Interaction Platform.
Laura is a freelance event organiser and film programmer who became interested in the politics of the cultural economy after running a small co-operative clubwear business in the late 90s and early 2000s. She is currently a PhD candidate at the SURF Centre, School of the Built Environment, University of Salford Manchester, on the AHRC Cultural Intermediation project. She is researching how universities interact with urban creative economies, with a particular focus on the role of festivals as networks of creating and distributing meaning and value.