Exclusive: The Arts Council is investigating finances at Wigan’s Old Courts
'These allegations, whilst currently unsubstantiated, are serious in nature and we have begun an investigation into the situation.'
Dear Millers – we normally send out this edition on Thursday mornings, or sometimes Friday mornings if something has held us up. It’s coming to you on Friday afternoon because we’ve been pushing to get a proper response to a set of questions that we sent at the start of the week: questions about the financial state of the Old Courts, a much loved multi-arts venue in Wigan.
At lunchtime, instead of the answers we were pushing for, we got an email from an expensive Manchester lawyer, encouraging us not to publish the story and asking for more time to respond to our enquiries. “We expect to be in a position to respond to you in further detail within seven days, and look forward to your confirmation that no story will be published in the meantime”, they wrote.
Well, the story is below — or at least, the first story is. We will undoubtedly return to this tale a bit further down the line when we can examine what’s happened in more detail and put further claims to the Old Courts. But for now, we can give you the state of play as it is, including the news that the Arts Council is investigating the Old Courts and has suspended its funding while it reviews what’s going on.
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Tuesday’s members-only edition combined data about happiness across Greater Manchester with an excellent theatre review. Sophie enjoyed the Royal Exchange’s Great Expectations, but she also “found myself fidgeting, and noticed other people in the audience doing the same, stealthily checking phones or watches.”
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Your Mill briefing
A couple of years ago, we reported on big problems in the system for getting home sexual health testing kits, and specifically the very narrow window of time in which people can order them online. We used web-page monitoring software to determine how long it took for these tests to run out each time they became available, finding that they would sometimes run out in less than half an hour. At the time, the council (which commissions the service) cited pressures from Covid-19. This week, the journalist Jack Fifield, who reported our original story, found the system still isn’t working. “I was unsuccessful despite being logged in and ready with the form filled out at 8.30am,” he tweeted yesterday. “Why is nobody talking about how crap this is!?”
A painting sitting in storage at Tatton Park has been revealed to be a valuable work by the 17th-century artist Venetian artist Rosalba Carriera. ‘The Portrait of a Tyrolese Lady’ was gifted to the National Trust in the 20th century but wasn’t thought to be an original, and was taken down from display in 1987 to allow for redecoration. It was the discovery of a Santini card hidden behind the painting, a small Catholic prayer written on a piece of paper that was Carriera’s signature motif with her works, that led the National Trust to confirm the painting’s authenticity.
The Tories are coming to town this weekend for the Conservative Party Conference and there’s a big demo happening on Oxford Road on Sunday, featuring RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch and other trade unionists and activists. Organisers say it’s part of “a mass movement to put the final nail in the coffin of this discredited and corrupt government.”
And finally, in this week’s podcast Joshi and Jack talk about Michaela Ali, a healthcare worker who waited over a year for her housing association to fix a rat infestation in her flat. It got more downloads on the day it came out than any episode we’ve ever published, but we’re still greedy for more. What we try to do with our podcast is to give you an insight into not only the story in question but also how we go about reporting these kinds of stories. If you think you might find that interesting, click this link to listen on your favoured podcasting platform.
Exclusive: Arts Council suspends funding as it investigates Wigan’s Old Courts
By Joshi Herrmann and Mollie Simpson
Less than a year ago, there was a very positive story in the media about Wigan, and it wasn’t anything to do with pies or Rugby League. It was about culture.
“Wigan arts projects hit the £4.5m jackpot,” reported Wigan Today, after the Arts Council lavished the area with public money. The biggest chunk of it went to an organisation called Arts at the Mill, which runs a popular venue called the Old Courts. The venue, based in a beautiful old courtroom, includes popular music venues, an art gallery, studios for artists, a cellar cinema, a cafe and practice rooms for bands.
“Arts at the Mill has been revolutionising Wigan’s cultural landscape from its Old Courts base with community-led arts programmes,” said Darren Henley, the chief executive of Arts Council England, when the news was announced in November 2022. “It will now get regular funding for the first time, receiving £1.05m over the next three years to develop more brilliant and engaging work.”
The organisation had already been receiving large sums of money from the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and Wigan Council, but getting the highly prized “National Portfolio” status from the Arts Council was a huge moment for the Old Courts and for the town. Managing director David Jenkins said it “puts Wigan on the map as a place of cultural significance.”
Ten months later, things look dramatically different. Late on Wednesday night — 24 hours after we had approached Arts at the Mill with a series of questions about its grave financial position and the departure of key staff — an emergency update was posted on the Old Courts Facebook page. It talked about “a devastating period in the life of our organisation,” and admitted that the Old Courts has just completed a round of redundancies.
The statement pinned the blame on a massive structural issue discovered in one of its main events spaces earlier this year which has resulted in a revenue shortfall of more than £1m. The Facebook post didn’t address some of the key questions we had sent the Old Courts (neither did the identical statement sent to us by email), but the theatre’s directors appeared optimistic about navigating a way forward, describing a “pretty packed calendar of activity” and “fantastic audience numbers”.
Today we can reveal that the Arts Council has suspended its payments to the Old Courts as it conducts a review into the organisation. “These allegations, whilst currently unsubstantiated, are serious in nature and we have begun an investigation into the situation,” a spokesperson told us.
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