Down on the corner. Cornerhouse turns 25.Kevin Bourke
Danny Boyle, Damien Hirst, and Eric Cantona are all regular visitors. Mike Leigh’s there next week. But the real triumph of Cornerhouse, argues Kevin Bourke, is that it has changed the face of art loving and coffee drinking in Manchester
Last week Cornerhouse celebrated its 25th birthday, and someone in the media asked a veteran arts commentator – all right, it was me! – just what it was that the now-venerated arts centre had changed about the Manchester artistic and social landscape since it opened in 1985. ‘Just about everything,’ I told them. They were obviously surprised and I can’t say I blame them. It is now pretty much impossible to imagine Manchester without Cornerhouse or to really conceive just how difficult it could be, pre-Cornerhouse, even to see films like, say, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan, let alone enjoy an art exhibition from the likes of Damien Hirst and a decent beer, coffee or pizza at the same venue.
Just ask Danny Boyle who, as a film-addicted youth in Bury, would travel, as many of us did, to see such offerings at probably the only place you could: the Aaben Cinema in Hulme. Invariably, you’d find yourself running a gauntlet of gaunt local youths to get inside and then, if you didn’t pick your seat wisely, having to dodge the rain dripping down inside the cinema, courtesy of an ever-growing hole in the roof.
‘It’s wonderful to see how Cornerhouse has become a vibrant social place,’ says Danny, who is a patron of Cornerhouse and makes a point of introducing his films there. ‘That’s all part of the whole cinema experience, somewhere to meet and talk about films as well as to watch them. It’s crucial to have these kinds of places. I always think the only good thing you can ever do, as a filmmaker, is to hope that there is someone sitting out there in the audience who actually ends up becoming a filmmaker. The new generation of young filmmakers are out there waiting to take over and a place like Cornerhouse allows that person to sit there and dream.’
‘I was managing a theatre in North Manchester when the place opened in 1985 and it blew me away. It was just great to see the sort of things that Cornerhouse brought to the city – the films, the exhibitions and of course the cappuccino!’ agrees the current Chief Executive Dave Moutrey, who’s been in post for twelve years and unapologetically believes he has the best job in Manchester.
Siobhan Ward, who currently works alongside Dave, has spent time in pretty much every area of the business over the past two decades. ‘Except finance, and I probably couldn’t show a film, although I was in the cinemas department,’ she says. ‘The funny thing about it is that the fundamental notion of Cornerhouse has stayed exactly the same throughout that time and that’s how it should be. It filled a huge gap, even if some people didn’t recognise it, for a vibrant, contemporary arts centre, somewhere covering visual arts, film and everything like that, combining all of it and forming a hub where people could meet and interact. People say “how can you stay in one job for so long?” but I haven’t worked in one job, I’ve just stayed in the same place. Every day is different here – the exhibitions change, the films change.’
Of course, people who’ve been around for a while will have their favourite Cornerhouse moments – Dave remembers being overawed to see David Byrne in the foyer, while Siobhan vividly recalls seeing Eric Cantona heading in, more than once, to watch films there. I can bore for Britain about sitting in the bar with Quentin Tarantino just a few days before Reservoir Dogs came out and nobody knowing who this loud-mouthed American was.
But the key, as always, is to look to the future, says Dave. ‘Of course, we are proud to have been at the forefront of Manchester’s vibrant cultural scene for so many years but I think the key thing is that Cornerhouse is about art and ideas that are contemporary. Every day is different and the environment is constantly changing. That’s why mine is the best job in Manchester. People say “Cornerhouse is not what it used to be”. Well, no, contemporary isn’t what it used to be! And contemporary isn’t the same as trendy. People accuse Cornerhouse of going all out to be trendy. We don’t, we go all out to be Cornerhouse. And that’s what we’ll keep doing.’
Images (top to bottom): Cornerhouse exterior; still from Desperately Seeking Susan; still from Peaches Christ’s All About Evil; Odyssey installation shot, Sheena Macrae, part of UnspoolingArtists at Cornerhouse