February 13, 2018

Irwell Sculpture Trail – 25 Years of Public Art (1)

This year is officially the 25th Anniversary of the Irwell Sculpture Trail  (IST). It’s a funny feeling realising that you have been working on something that long, provoking, inevitably, the urge to reminisce. As anyone who tried to study the Text Festival, before Susan Lord stepped in to establish the Text Archive, will know I am notoriously disinterested in past projects – as John Peel used to say: “The last song isn’t as interesting as the next song”.  Someone wanting to know about the IST can look at the website, visit the sculptures or, if studying public art, make an appointment to see the historical files. But there are very few people left who can tell the stories behind the IST and the artists, and actually only me left still able to recount the tales of the 40+ artworks plus supporting community projects, temporary works and exhibitions, and ultimately also the creation of the Bury Sculpture Centre in 2014. The first sculpture I curated was by an artist called Pauline Holmes who made a beautiful (no longer extant) work with logs in Rawtenstall and
the latest was Auke de Vries magnificent untitled sculpture at Burrs Country Park last year. The next (later this year) will be the memorial sculpture of Victoria Wood by Graham Ibbeson. So, this starts an occasional series of blogs recounting an anecdotal history of sculptures in the Irwell valley.
The first thing to say is that this 25th Anniversary isn’t commemoration of IST’s inauguration - I have actually been working on IST since 1993. I had just arrived at Rossendale Council as the new Tourism & Arts Officer, when the Councillor responsible for Tourism came into my office and told me that he wanted me to organise Sunday markets at newly opened Rawtenstall station to encourage visitors arriving on the East Lancs Steam Railway to get off the trains and spend money in the town. The idea of me organising Sunday markets was abysmal. So I had to think of something quick that would achieve the same result without me wanting to kill myself in the first month of the new job. At the time there was one sculpture on the roundabout beside the station, celebrating the town-twinning with Bocholt in Germany. A few days later while washing some dishes, it occurred to me that a small sculpture trail around the station could be used to guide visitors to point of interest in Rawtenstall. I started identifying sites for sculptures with John Elliman in the Planning dept and realised that almost by accident the locations were on the Irwell Valley Trail. So that’s how it started in Rossendale. A few months later I was shopping in Manchester and saw a street sign pointing to the Irwell River; blinkedly working in Rossendale I had only recognised the river there. Suddenly I realised that, as rivers do, it ran all the way down to Manchester. I wrote from Rossendale to Bury and Manchester with the proposal that they commission art on the path too and together we could create the longest public sculpture trail in Europe. I had no idea if that was true, but we’ve been saying it ever since!
In that period, I commissioned 3 or 4 artworks (some of which no longer exist) and Bury commission a couple. I moved to a job in Bury which coincided with the launch of the National Lottery. With that pot of money available, I coordinated the 3 local authorities plus then Lancashire County Council and a handful of Environmental agencies (most of which have been abolished now) to bid for my vision of an environmental art trail running 30 miles from Bacup at the source of the river to Salford Quays. This is why this year is the 25th anniversary – it commemorates the year we started commissioning in earnest with an operating budget of £4million (£2.1million from the Lottery). We didn’t bid for that much money originally – it was much less; but when the lottery assessor came, he said that I wasn’t asking for enough money to achieve the scale of vision I was describing. He didn’t have to submit his judgment straight away so he gave me 2 weeks to rewrite the bid. In that 2 weeks I wrote 26 new documents and the money flowed. I doubt you can do that in today’s bureaucracy –  Lottery funding was more wild west then!
The other interesting anecdote about the bid itself came, when one morning the Councillor mentioned above came to my office to congratulate me on the success of the bid. I pointed to the documents still laying on my desk, and told him I had not yet submitted it. But he told me that the Secretary of State for Heritage/Culture had announce on Radio 4 that the Irwell Sculpture Trail had been awarded the grant. It took a little time to work out what this was about. It came down to politics. I discovered that the Secretary of State, Virginia Bottomley MP was scheduled for an interview on Radio 4 during which it was obvious that she was going to have a hard time justifying the Lottery’s first major grant being £50million to ‘elitist’ Covent Garden Opera. Her bureaucrats were charged with finding something she could point to that was ‘up north’ and ‘for the people’. To the system’s shame, they had not funded anything of the kind, so her briefing had to talk about something that fitted the bill and gloss over that it hadn’t actually been approved yet.
Anyway, on Saturday 17 February, the Sculpture Centre hosts an IST retrospective celebration of the work of Brass Art (Chara Lewis, Kristin Mojsiewicz and Anneke Pettican). Brass Art have a long history of working with Bury Art Museum and did their IST From the Tower Falls the Shadow in 2002.
(More IST artist stories in the next blog)

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