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New lesson from Manchester? 'Free the arts from colonisation by the middle class'

"There is a fear among the artistic middle class of oversimplification, as if working-class people are not smart enough for art. I find that really insulting. My great-grandfather would be offended."

I found this combative quote in The Mill, a highly successful local news site for the Greater Manchester Area, a kind of northern English Randstad with a few million inhabitants. It comes from Dave Moutrey. , a man I met in February 2020 during a working visit to Manchester. He speaks in an interview about his plans as Director of Arts of that GMA.

ENO away from London

As recently as 2020, Moutrey was director of HOME, a metropolitan cultural centre that brought together library, film house and theatre. HOME had emerged from a budget-cutting forced merger of a pair of legendary venues in the city. After an ambitious start in 2015 led by Dutchman Walter Meyer Johann took over his burnt-out baton in 2018. He chose a different direction, in which he wanted to look for what Manchester residents expect from a centre like HOME. The arts scene blamed him for populism, but the centre is now, after the pandemic, a success. Not only artistically, but also in visitor numbers.

So now he is Manchester's full-time Director of Culture, a position in which he was involved in the relocation of the National Opera of England (ENO) in December from London to Manchester. Until then, Manchester was the largest European city without its own opera house. Now that the Conservative government is using the spread idea rather rigorously, forcing the ENO out of London on pain of closure, Manchester has big plans for opera. Taking more account of the wishes of ordinary people is part of this.

Rem Koolhaas

Manchester, a city that has been under Labour rule since that party was founded, has an extremely ambitious cultural policy. That this is bearing fruit is shown by the success of the music scene and the Manchester International Festival. A festival hall designed by Rem Koolhaas was built for that purpose.

Manchester's new Director of Arts wants to further democratise the arts: "One of the reasons I work in the arts is my great-grandfather, who worked in the blast furnaces in Teesside and was a huge opera lover," he tells The Mill. "He was not unique in the working class at the end of the nineteenth century. If you look at the history of opera in Italy, you see that it was a folk art form. We have lost that. It has been colonised by the middle class."

Colonisation of the arts

'Art is elitist' is something we will hear often again in the coming months. As stale as this idea may seem, shouting very loudly that it is not, is not going to work. The sector did that 15 years ago, with little success. So should art be less elitist? If we are to believe people like Moutrey, it is inevitable. When talking about theatre, he says: "I think theatre has always been a popular art form. The colonisation of theatre [by the middle class] started in the 1960s and 1970s."

Somehow the interesting idea is that decolonisation of the arts should not only be about breaking free of ingrained prejudices and misplaced ideas of superiority of the incumbent class. If you follow Moutrey's ideas, that very incumbent class should also be shaken up.


Now England is a lot more traditional and conservative than the Netherlands, and here you can already see a movement at many theatres and arts buildings towards more openness and real reaching out to new audiences and new values, such as the Rijksmuseum, the Wilmink in Enschede and especially the work of Alida Dors in Rotterdam. 

Time will tell whether these developments will continue to be picked up in The Hague, or whether the arts sector will become completely dependent on itself, dubious rich backers and the public. If so, it may well become much more elitist, with champagne-soaked premieres in private theatres and subsidised barrel organs during the oliebollenkermis in Bergen op Zoom.

Then it can pay off how a city like Manchester holds its own culturally under pressure from massive cuts by the Conservative government in London. 

So I only subscribe to The Mill taken. Like Culture Press, by the way, can also be reached at substack

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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