When you think of Blackpool, it’s usually with an image of Kiss Me Quick hats, donkeys and candy floss, with some old school variety thrown in for good measure... if you’re conforming to the stereotype.
Michael Trainor is the man tasked with changing that out-dated image and establishing a new arts culture in the resort, spearheading the £3m, three-year LeftCoast project.
Blackpool was awarded the money from Arts Council England’s Creative People and Places pot, and LeftCoast is moving into its second year – with its latest commission, programming the annual Showzam! festival, getting underway on Saturday.
While there’s a celebrated history of entertainment, with some of the nation’s most treasured venues in town, the funding seeks to bring the resort back to its heyday.
“We are excited to have completed our first year and be entering the second year in a healthy position,” Michael said. “We have had good feedback, and there is a buzz around what we are doing.”
Among the projects helmed by LeftCoast were performances of aerial As The World Tipped at Blackpool Cricket Club and BLAM!, at the Grand Theatre.
“After As The World Tipped, people were asking ‘what’s next’, and that’s ideal for us,” Michael said. “They just wanted to know ‘when’ it would be and not ‘what’ it would be.”
Besides the major performances, Michael admits there is a lot of work behind the scenes for LeftCoast, developing established and new artists and performers, with the long-term aim of them being able to go out to the wider world from their Fylde coast base.
“We want Blackpool to be a generator of amazing work, rather than just receiving it,” Michael added. “That’s the key thing.
“Having an export model for our artists and performers will be the real sign of success – getting Blackpool-based people touring in Europe and putting on shows at events like Manchester International or Edinburgh festivals.
“It’s not that there isn’t an arts culture, but it doesn’t achieve profile.
“There’s a scale issue too; we have huge amazing venues, but little by way of small places to develop new work.”
With LeftCoast based on a three-year spending pot, what are the future funding plans?
“The aim is to make things sustainable,” Michael said. “It’s not necessarily just about finding public funding, more how can we start up a group or organisation so that it has a life of its own.
“That can be through more volunteers or business sponsorship.
“It’s a mistake to fund things and walk away – you have to invest in people so they have the skills to make it work.
“You can’t get public support for the arts these days without one, being brilliant and, two, having some chance of it becoming sustainable.
“It’s a serious business, especially in Blackpool, where it’s linked to the future of the town, as well as being firmly rooted in its past.
“People are open to the arts here, it’s not a conservative place, and that makes it exciting.”
And Michael is not afraid to answer why the arts should be a priority during times of austerity and in the face of basic cuts across the board.
“When you build a housing estate, you can build boxes all the same, or you can build houses for the same cost and create interactivity at the same time,” he explained.
“We put together special meetings bringing in experts, architects and artists to bring in the best from elsewhere to hopefully inspire those here.
“One of our key roles is inspiration and giving confidence to build in hard times, and inspiring decision makers in the hope people will live and work here.
“It’s easy to feel, if you’re in a slightly threadbare part of town, that it can’t change, but I have seen it happen. People can look back and not believe they have gotten to where they are from where they were.
“Art is not just about actual pictures, but also painting pictures and visions in people’s minds – that’s the long-haul game.”
He’s seen the results of regeneration first hand, having been involved from day one in the transformation of Manchester’s Northern Quarter into a must-see destination for arts, culture and independent shops.
“I think I was the only person living there, at the time,” he said. “There was a meeting in a nightclub in 1992, and I would say we didn’t see major physical changes for about seven years, but you could feel the change beginning.
“Most major regeneration projects take 20 years to fully come through.
“We’re not at year zero for Blackpool; the local authority has made bold decisions in owning the Winter Gardens and Tower and the work on the Prom – people will look back to those times as the start.”
Michael admits he was ‘bullied in a nice way’ into applying for the lead role at LeftCoast, when fellow arts practitioners were saying the job was perfect for him.
His first link to Blackpool, however, was the 2002 installation of his Mirrorball at South Promenade, officially called They Shoot Horses, Don’t They.
That and other recent art installations in the town encouraged him to make the more permanent move, adding: “It’s a place where you can experiment, and a place where people come to revive themselves – and that’s what arts are often about.”
Showzam! gets underway on Saturday, with a host of workshops and shows taking over various venues in town – from Showzam! Central at the Winter Gardens, to workshops for children of all ages, and headline shows from South American circus school performance troupe Circolumbia.
“The added ingredient this year is slightly more focus on circus and street performance, making it more specialist but in an accessible way,” Michael explained. “And we have added more international acts.
“It’s no small thing to bring an act from Bogotá and present it, at a loss, to the people of Blackpool.
“£8 to see these shows is ridiculous – but that’s what we’re here for, and that’s why there’s public funding for the arts.”