Against a general trend of arts cutbacks, Tony Trehy – text poet, curator and art manager at Bury Art Museum has founded a new international exhibition space: Bury Sculpture Centre. Launched to coincide with the latest Bury Text Festival, its first show is by New York artist Lawrence Weiner, who has a long association with the North West region and the festival.

But nothing comes easy. The Sculpture Centre has taken over what used to be part of Bury Library, and on the venue’s opening night, local people – albeit a small number of them – staged a protest outside.

Trehy remains sanguine while explaining the complex story behind the sculpture centre, which has its origins in the 15-year-old Irwell Sculpture Trail, containing over 70 artworks and run by a partnership that brings together local authorities in Bury, Salford, Rossendale and Lancashire County Council. He describes how they realised that the over-arching concept of the sculpture trail was missing something.

“When you look at say the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the thing that’s different is that you arrive at a visitors centre which has got a hub – and then you wander round the gardens and look at the work. So the Irwell Sculpture Trail Partnership decided that the thing that was missing from the sculpture trail as a visitor experience was: where do you arrive? And Bury is the centre, geographically, of the trail. So we knew that whatever it was, it was probably going to be in Bury.”

At the same time, another dynamic came into play: local government cuts. “Bury Council did a library review which they have to do as a public consultation,” Trehy continues. “The upshot of the review was that the council had to review its staffing, in terms of library services. The budget was about £2m for libraries and they had to find £800,000 in cuts, which is substantial. But the council had made a policy decision that they weren’t going to close any libraries – which is quite a difficult square to circle. The way they did it was downsizing some of the libraries and co-locating some of the others, so the costs were spread.”

When it came to Bury’s Library and Art Gallery, however, the situation was more complicated – plans included mothballing part of the library, or renting space to a supermarket or restaurant. “And I just made the connection and said, actually that’s the Irwell Sculpture Trail Centre,” Trehy recalls. “Because it’s next to the gallery, all the systems are already in place, the heating and lighting is exactly the same circuit, so I just proposed that we could have a Sculpture Centre.”

Airy and “gorgeous” space

The new Sculpture Centre is an airy, white space comprising two connected rectangular rooms, one illuminated by large windows and the other by an overhead domed window and lighting coming through restored glass panels in the floor.

“We had to lift the carpet,” Trehy says, recalling the restoration work. “The floor underneath was absolutely buggered, there was so much glue on it; it’s been polished and repairs done. Some people wrote to the local paper and said we’re vandalising the library. But actually the library had been doing that, because they’d been drilling holes and putting in cables. There were lots of holes and places where people had just dug up the parquet. So we’ve actually brought it back – it’s not been visible for 20 or 30 years.”

Trehy describes the space as “gorgeous, and you couldn’t see it because it was broken up with partitions and shelves. The whole job has cost about £73,000.” There has been controversy, though, with some local people understandably seeing the project as about shrinking the library to create the Sculpture Centre. Trehy insists that in fact the alternative was an empty space rather than keeping it open as part of the library.

“It’s an expansion of the art gallery services into an empty space,” he says. “And the reason why it’s affordable – how we can open an international sculpture centre in the context of an £800,000 cut in the libraries – is because the library’s still in the building, the actual running cost of the space is exactly the same as it was before. The most expensive bit was the books and the staff. And because they’ve been reduced, the heating and lighting make no difference. So having this space is neutral revenue cost. And the only cost is putting on exhibitions.”

Programming is already planned into 2015 with a second show called Remix, guest curated by David Thorp, featuring work by Chinese and British artists, including Richard Wilson’s Butterfly (2003), a full-size Cessna aircraft. A third show, Threads, will be a sculptural textiles installation, followed by a contemporary Scandinavian show, and a group show from Holland. So Bury’s new sculpture centre really does look as if it will be international in scope. “For a neutral budget,” Trehy concludes, “it will have an economic impact.”