Have the arts been ‘colonised’ by the middle class?
Dave Moutrey is about to start full time as Manchester’s Director of Culture after many years running HOME. And he has strong views about who art should be for
By Joshi Herrmann
I’m in the upstairs restaurant at HOME with its outgoing chief executive Dave Moutrey, talking about colonisation, an in-vogue topic among arts professionals. No, not that colonisation. He means the “colonisation of theatre and more broadly the arts,” that has taken place since the late 1960s.
“One of the reasons I work in the arts is my great-grandfather, who worked on the blast furnaces in Teesside and was a huge opera fan,” Moutrey tells me. “He wasn't uncommon among lots of working-class people who were born at the end of the nineteenth century. If you look at the history of opera in Italy it was very much a people's art form, and we've lost that. It's become colonised by the middle class.”
A few days before our interview in early December, Greater Manchester pulled off a stunning coup, winning the race to provide a new out-of-London home for the English National Opera (ENO), though the exact details of its arrival (where will they rehearse? Which venues aside from The Lowry and Aviva Studios will they use?) have yet to be worked out. Moutrey was involved in the process as Manchester’s Director of Culture, a role he has been doing part-time since 2018 and will soon take on full-time after he leaves his post at HOME. He’s not a big operagoer himself, but somewhat counter-intuitively, that’s exactly why he’s excited about the ENO coming here: because of the company’s desire to re-invent opera by putting on performances in novel venues and by reaching outside of traditional audiences via modern, relatable librettos. “Working with a company that wants to rediscover that relationship is going to be interesting,” he says.
Interesting but also… difficult. “It will be a long haul, there is no question about that,” Moutrey says. He should know. For more than 40 years, he has been running arts organisations in the city, from the Abraham Moss Theatre in the 1980s to the cultural marketing agency Arts About Manchester in the 1990s. In 1998 he became the head of the Cornerhouse, which merged with the Library Theatre to create HOME in 2015 with Moutrey at the helm. In that time, he has learned a lot about what Manchester audiences want. And just as importantly, how to navigate the treacherous politics of arts funding.
“Dave is one of the most astoundingly political operators going, maybe even nationally,” says one person in Manchester’s theatreland who spotted Moutrey at last year’s Labour Party conference huddling with arts industry people. “He's very good at that side of things.” That might not sound like a ringing endorsement, but my party conference spy doesn’t see it that way: in their eyes, Moutrey’s savvy has paid off for the city. “He's managed to navigate national politics in order to keep Manchester in the national picture,” they say.
Moutrey, who is wearing a black roll neck and watching me intently through his round, owl-like glasses as I read out these quotes and a set of questions from Mill readers, laughs off the idea that he is “astoundingly political”. He’s chuffed that anyone should consider him so astute. Or maybe that kind of humility is the key to his charm, along with an attentive manner and a soft North East accent. After our interview, he feels he hasn’t answered all my questions and sets up a follow-up call a few days later, in which he tells me that he hasn’t entirely got his head around Aviva Studios yet — Manchester’s huge new £242m arts venue and Manchester International Festival’s home. “Big venue, big budgets, big risks,” he says.
While the concept of an “arts centre” had gone out of fashion from the around the late 1970s, in the early part of the 2000s, Moutrey could see an opportunity to pull together different types of artistic practice — including cinema, theatre and the visual arts — in one building. “Many artists defined themselves less as theatre makers or visual artists; they were just artists,” he tells me. The birth of council-owned HOME was controversial because of the loss of the much-loved Cornerhouse and Library Theatre, but it has since established itself as one of Manchester’s most popular venues.
I sense from friends that, in my circles at least, HOME is better known for its cinema and café/bar than it is for theatre. Which is surprising, given that Moutrey’s background was in theatre above anything else. “The cinema and [visual] art parts of it have been unmitigated successes,” one regular tells me, “but the theatre bit is less clear.”
In many people’s eyes, HOME was going to be “the Barbican of the North” — a venue with a contemporary aesthetic that would attract international works and produce daring work of its own. Appointing the Dutch-German director Walter Meierjohann as artistic director was a signal that HOME saw itself as a more European venue, but his tenure didn’t work out and he left in 2018. “I think he got fed up with the parochialism of the audiences,” one theatre watcher says, while a former employee thinks the audience HOME inherited from the Library didn’t buy into Meierjohann’s vision.
No one was hired in his place, and I get the sense from avid theatregoers in Manchester that they don’t feel HOME has lived up to its promise, despite putting on some very popular shows. “HOME produces hardly anything of its own now, and in a city with a sizeable theatre ecology, it should be doing much more,” a former staffer says, while adding that they admire how Moutrey has managed to recreate the atmosphere and feel of the Cornerhouse in a building five or six times bigger.
Audience numbers have almost recovered to pre-pandemic levels, Moutrey says, and he acknowledges that he has moved towards more commercial — or more “accessible” — work (an example might be Song From Far Away starring Will Young, a co-production with a commercial producer). Putting on lots of avant-garde plays that may or may not pay for themselves isn’t feasible anymore, given the spiralling costs of production, which he estimates are 40% higher than a few years ago. But that’s not the main reason for HOME’s switch of emphasis, he says. It was more about “working out what Manchester wants”.
I find this fascinating. What does Manchester want when it comes to theatre and the arts more broadly? And how does the man who is about to become the city’s full-time cultural chief think about the question of serving an increasingly wide-ranging audience?
Returning to the Barbican of the North idea, Moutrey says: "We started off with that as a vision because we thought Manchester might want that.” He doesn’t neatly finish the thought, but it’s obvious what he’s getting at. Manchester’s audiences are “sophisticated”, but that doesn’t mean you can do the same things you would do in London. He talks about Little Red, a recent production that attracted a “really diverse audience of families”, something he hopes will be repeated with the new co-produced musical Frankie Goes to Bollywood, coming out this summer. HOME’s audiences are becoming “less monocultural than in the past,” he tells me, which is a point of pride.
“Democratisation” of the arts in Greater Manchester is what he says he cares about most. That does not mean dumbing down. “You see there's a middle class prejudice about describing things as dumbing down, as though working class people aren't smart enough to understand the stuff that they do,” he says. “I find that really offensive. My great-grandad would be really offended by that."
Biography is destiny, as they say. Everything for Moutrey comes back to his family and his roots. He grew up in Teesside, where his dad drove trucks and his mum worked in a shop. He credits his career to a liberal education system that gave him the flexibility and the space to try things out. At university in Leeds, he trained as an art teacher, but still felt that he “needed permission to do things, because that’s the way as a working class person I was conditioned to think.”
The punk revolution changed all that. He didn’t have a Mohican, but he does now have hearing aids, owing to the racket he was exposed to while working on the doors at gigs in Leeds. And punk’s underlying assertion that you don’t need permission to do things altered him, as did books like A Good Night Out by playwright John McGrath, a 1981 classic which explored (as the publisher puts it) what theatre “could be doing for the populace instead of walling itself up in subsidised fortresses for the well-to-do.”
Which brings us back to colonisation. “I think that theatre always was a popular art form,” Moutrey tells me, referring to the rowdy, accessible performances of the Elizabethan period. “I think the colonisation of theatre and more broadly the arts has happened since the late Sixties going through the Seventies.”
This seems to be where Moutrey’s motivation truly stems from. “I actually do give a shit about arts and culture, it really matters to me,” he says. “I've had a really lucky, fabulous life. I think it's incumbent on me, as I get to the end of my career, to do whatever I can to make sure other people that come from where I come from get the opportunity to do that.”
As Manchester’s Director of Culture, he is currently interpreting the results of the council's recent citywide consultation on the arts, which will then be used to create a 10-year cultural strategy. He says he has the full backing of the city council’s leader Bev Craig (and her opera-loving CEO Joanne Roney) in his quest to democratise the arts and bring them closer to communities. The city is known around the world for music, but other artforms need more support.
Moutrey thinks the arts can improve the life chances of people in more deprived areas by raising the ambitions of young people and creating lots of jobs, including as technicians and set makers as well as actors and musicians. The ENO move and the opening of Aviva Studios are good examples of that job creation.
Several times he comes back to a utilitarian view of the benefits of the arts by mentioning health and economic metrics, rather than the shows themselves. Shouldn’t we value a great performance of Chekhov in its own right? “It is valuable in itself, but that doesn't detract from the fact that it has broader economic value, and broader social value,” he says.
Moutrey believes the council can be proactive in making sure there are still spaces for artists to do their work. Rehearsal spaces like Brunswick Mill, which used to be full of workshops and bands, are disappearing to create flats, but he cites the council’s relocation of Rogue Artist Studios from Ancoats to a former secondary school building in Openshaw as an example of what needs to be done in response to gentrifying city centre neighbourhoods. He hopes that the redevelopment of Wythenshawe’s Civic, funded recently by £20 million of government levelling up money, will include a creative hub, and he points to HOME’s creation of three artist studios under railway arches on Whitworth Street as an example of what can be done in the city centre. “I'll be looking as Director of Culture for more opportunities to do that kind of thing,” he says.
Local authorities across the country are going bust and some of Greater Manchester’s councils are planning major spending cuts in the next few years, even after 13 years of belt-tightening. Can Manchester enrich its cultural offering, reach new audiences and also support smaller organisations like Hope Mill Theatre and 53two, when it has so many other financial priorities? It feels like a difficult task, one that will require a lot of vision, patience and — yes — political nous. In which case, Dave Moutrey might be a match for the job.