In 1971, the mill and mining town of Leigh, Lancashire, located astride the Leeds-Liverpool canal between the two great metropolises of Manchester and Liverpool, hosted an exhibition of modern sculptures by Henry Moore. The show was the first at the Turnpike Gallery, situated in a striking and architecturally innovative modernist building that combined an open-plan library space on ground level with a purpose-built gallery on the upper floor.

Like many civic buildings of the time, it incorporated a specially commissioned mural: a large, abstract concrete relief by the industrial designer William Mitchell, mounted on the front of the building. “You can see aspiration in it, bravery and forward-thinking at a hard time for the town,” explains arts manager Helen Stalker. “People are astonished when they find out there is a mural on the front by the same artist who designed the doors for Liverpool Catholic Cathedral.”

The Turnpike encapsulates the ethos of the post-war period, catching the tail end of a wave of UK-wide renewal. Characterised in popular discourse as an era of optimism, it reflects a time when initiatives were put in place to develop the welfare state, expand and modernise the education system, rebuild British towns and cities, and bring art and culture to a wider section of the population.

Yet, after more than 40 years of high calibre programming at the venue, in 2013 Wigan Borough Council pulled all funding for the gallery, making its one remaining member of staff redundant. Since its final show by abstract painter Gillian Ayres, it has relied on local art groups to programme the space – a familiar story that continues to be repeated all over the country.

Stalker, a resident of the nearby village of Lowton and at the time fine art curator at Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, was a regular visitor to Turnpike’s exhibitions. She observed what happened to it over the next couple of years as it “became full of pictures of Johnny Depp and numerous African sunsets.”

After thinking “I’d love to get my hands on it,” Stalker got her chance early in 2016, when she applied for a two-year post as arts manager, advertised by the social enterprise charity Trust in Leigh and funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. Stalker joined the Turnpike in March 2016 after ten years at the Whitworth and five at Tate Liverpool. “It’s an incredible learning curve,” she admits. “I’m getting a better understanding of the real-world climate of arts venues.”

The scale of the challenge became apparent within days of starting her new job. The problems were partly financial, partly physical and partly infrastructural – but also to do with attitudes. “It’s a very precious space but it’s been neglected, misunderstood and not considered, so we have to fight for it,” explains Stalker. “Lots of people are sniffy and snigger about it – it’s a lump of concrete in the middle of the beautiful town hall and parish church. It needs a wash. It is full of moths and smells funny when you walk in – it’s not been looked after in the ways it should have been.”

Nonetheless, Stalker sees great potential: “The bare bones are there and it’s gorgeous when you look up at the concrete ceilings. We need to refocus people’s eyes on it. The Turnpike is a great space and a great venue and I want to bring that level of quality back.”

Since taking on her new role, Stalker has established an independent community interest company to take over the running of the Turnpike, with a new board of trustees from across the arts, business and marketing. “We are aiming to be more ambitious, to have more outreach and to bring a creative environment back in,” explains Stalker. “It needs real impact and serious change. I’d like a creative hub with the community at the heart, which is both shaped by the town and shapes the town, a coming together and connection point which is cross-collaborative, where people can be inspired by each other.”

Initially, Stalker is developing a three-year exploratory programme. Operating in such straitened circumstances it will, of necessity, be enabled by strategic alliances – including partnerships with the Jerwood Foundation, Liverpool Biennial and Impressions Gallery in Bradford – as well as by nurturing friendships with local organisations and institutions.

Its first exhibition, opening on 14 January, is the Jerwood Drawing Prize, an annual touring show that challenges and expands expectations and understandings of what it means to draw. Stalker sees it as an opportunity to talk to audiences, engage schools and host drawing workshops. Instead of a holding a private view for dignitaries, she is keen that schools will be the first to see the exhibition, and children will take part in a “Jerwood within a Jerwood”, making their own decisions about the winners.

In June, the Turnpike will be one of several North West galleries (others include Touchstones, Rochdale and Bury Art Museum) to select work and build a programme from the 2016 Liverpool Biennial as part of its “really exciting” strategic touring fund, which has been established to develop audiences. The idea is that rather than being “parachuted in”, the selected artist comes and engages with the town, for example by working with local teenagers.

In November, the Turnpike will show new and existing work by Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson, including their 2015 installation Song for Coal, originally shown at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and drawing on the material fabric of Leigh by using coal taken from the area in new works. Manchester artist Mary Griffiths will also reference the heritage of the town, from mining and industry to engineering, at an exhibition in 2018.

Another plan for 2017 is for an open call photography competition responding to, reinventing and offering a new vision of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, corresponding with its 80th anniversary. “People are still quite bitter about it around here,” explains Stalker. “They want to shake off the book’s legacy.”

The changing exhibitions will be complemented by a multi-purpose studio space, and the Turnpike’s flat roof will be put to use as a Shangri-La-themed terrace, in reference to Leigh-born James Hilton, who coined the term in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon.

The Turnpike’s new programme is part of a bigger ambition to develop a cultural strategy and voice for Wigan. “There is an uneven playing field in the area; access to culture is really low down on the priority list. Wigan is a huge borough but it’s not got the riches of Manchester… The local authority in Manchester understands that the arts play a vital role in the city, but Wigan has a wobbly infrastructure for the arts with nothing underneath it.”

Stalker is mindful of challenges in Leigh, such as underinvestment, above-average rates of drug addiction, alcoholism, self-harm and mental health problems, and low numbers of school-ready five-year-olds. Another issue is isolation and disengagement that goes far beyond the arts. “There are pockets where people of all ages don’t leave their estate,” she explains. The reinvention of the Turnpike, therefore, is “not just about having a nice art gallery in town”, but about systematic changes.

One core part of the gallery’s target audience will be schools; there are three within walking distance of the Turnpike. “Regional and local artists have told me that the place made them artists when they were children; we need to develop a culturally aware generation with a voice and raise aspirations for young people. We need to bring art and culture of an exceptional standard to them so they understand what it is and that they’re entitled to it – why shouldn’t they have it on their doorstep?”

To support this, Stalker is taking part in the Cultural Educational Leadership programme, a new scheme from the Arts Council England-supported ‘bridge organisation’ Curious Minds. She is being trained as a school governor in order to establish how schools work and what they need to address, from understanding how to reduce the attainment gap, to seeking solutions to the awkward transition between primary and secondary school. As well as running enrichment days and advocating for the arts and education, she hopes to extend the school day by offering access to the arts after school.

Despite some scepticism about the demand for contemporary art in the town – Leigh and Wigan are “flashing bright red on the Arts Council map of lack of engagement,” says Stalker – she believes “that there is a huge hunger for it, and not just for watercolour landscapes.”

Stalker hopes the Turnpike will be a catalyst for taking art out into the town, into its empty buildings and shops. Meanwhile, the town hall has received money from the Heritage Lottery Fund to develop a heritage centre and another cultural venue will be opening nearby. Castlefield Gallery’s New Art Spaces supports local artists and there are plans to expand the recently launched Wigan Arts Festival to include Leigh.

“There’s some agitation about the town, and art and culture are the catalyst,” says Stalker. “Once we’ve got over the barriers at the Turnpike we can really have some fun with it!”

The Jerwood Drawing Prize 2016 exhibition opens at Turnpike Gallery, Leigh on 14 January 2017.

This is an edited version of an article that was originally published on

1-2. Exterior of Turnpike Centre, Leigh, home to Turnpike Gallery, with original 1971 relief by William Mitchell. Photo: Natalie Bradbury.
3. Thomas Treherne, Untitled Panorama, part of the Jerwood Drawing Prize 2016 exhibition at Turnpike Gallery 14 January – 11 March 2017
4. Plaque commemorating the opening of Leigh Library in 1971. Photo: Natalie Bradbury
5. Turnpike Gallery, Leigh, exhibition space. Photo: Natalie Bradbury

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