Blackpool has and forever will be linked to the nation’s entertainment industry.
And on his visit to meet the town’s arts and culture leaders, the chief executive of the Arts Council England has heaped praise on the resort for its continued passion in that realm.
Darren Henley spent a full day in town, with meetings and tours at several arts centres, checking up on projects funded by the council as well as seeing the best on offer.
Taking in the work by the Arts Council-funded LeftCoast, the refurbishment programme at the Grand Theatre – which is also an Arts Council contemporary dance specialist centre, and the Grundy Art Gallery, among other spots, he has high praise for the town’s artistic communities.
“One of the things for me that’s exciting about Blackpool is that it has such a heritage as a cultural attraction, but it’s not somewhere that’s just building on that,” he said.
“It’s excites me that there’s clear ambition for this to be very much somewhere that’s a 21st Century destination.
We want Blackpool people to demand the best - and people here can do that, with the history of having the very, very best in town.Darren Henley
“There are real gems in the heritage, the Winter Gardens, the Grand and more, but again, they’re not standing still - there’s investment, especially at the Grand where the Arts Council has supported the work going on.
“The Grundy was fantastic. One of the things Blackpool is famous for is its lights, so for the gallery to build art shows around that and to commission new works from vibrant young artists on that theme is really exciting.
“And Blackpool Library is one of the most attractive libraries in the country, what a beautiful building. I took note of seven words on the windows, inspiring people: Belong, illuminate, aspire, freedom, reflect, stories, imagine and curiosity.
“Blackpool has attracted some national and international quality talent to run its art and cultural organisations and has a great infrastructure.”
Darren’s new to the Arts Council, having joined the national body in the spring.
And since his appointment Darren has made a point of travelling the length and breadth of England to meet the people who drive forward arts and culture.
So far for the council’s funding round for 2014 to 2018, £4.7million has been awarded to Blackpool, with major beneficiaries including the £3million, three-year grant to LeftCoast and £700,000 for the current refurbishment project at the Grand Theatre.
And applications are in for a new round of cash for LeftCoast, which should be decided on by October, to take their work in Blackpool and Wyre forward beyond the current end point of early 2017.
“There’s been a sizable amount of money making a real difference here,” he said. “It’s really important people who live and make their lives in Blackpool can enjoy, interact and benefit from it. The money is being spent really, really well.
“There’s a great local authority here, investing huge amounts of money making sure Blackpool has a really good arts and culture infrastructure.
“OK, the visitor economy is important, but Blackpool is a place that’s fantastic for people living here all the time.
“As the Arts Council, we want great visitor attractions but we want people living in an area to benefit as well.
“The big thing for us is that wherever you live, we want there to be the very best in arts and culture for those who live and work in those areas.
“We want Blackpool people to demand the best - and people here can do that, with the history of having the very, very best in town.”
Darren was given a tour of the Winter Gardens, including the Pavilion Theatre where the new Blackpool Museum project will be based, and he heaped praise on those behind its development, hailing the exciting scheme.
As well as current and future projects in the town, Darren was also impressed by one of Blackpool’s newest features - the Comedy Carpet.
“I could have stood there all day, smiling to myself,” he said. “It’s a great example of large scale visual art, that’s been invested in by various agencies that is living and breathing for people to interact with.”
One criticism often lodged at the Arts Council’s door is its neglect of the country outside of London, and that’s something Darren is already trying to combat.
Since coming into the role, he’s seen the spending from Arts Council England’s Lotto funding pot upped, from 70 per cent going to ventures outside London to 75 per cent, which will come into play from 2017.
Other than that, the Arts Council is in the same boat as any publicly funded body - waiting to hear just how much the Government will be cutting from its next cash allocation.
“We are making very strong arguments about the investment in arts and culture and hope for the best.”
And he reiterated the body’s commitment to Blackpool as a major centre for arts and culture, saying: “Blackpool is getting a name for itself around arts and culture, the way it has with the whole entertainment spectrum for generations, and it’s the Arts Council’s job to help make that happen.
“There really is no limit to the possibilities of what you can achieve here.”