Anyone who has visited the centre of Chester recently cannot fail to have seen the transformation that is taking place in the former Odeon cinema.
I donned my hard hat and high-vis jacket just a few weeks ago to tour the building works. Behind the hoardings, Chester’s brand new £37 million theatre, library and cinema is taking shape.
Named Storyhouse, it will provide the city with a brilliant cultural resource, which I’m convinced will very quickly become Chester’s beating cultural heart.
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Making sure that our investment reaches right across the country is something that we’re very passionate about at Arts Council England. I took over as chief executive exactly a year ago.
Since then, I’ve spent half of each working week outside London, travelling around the country meeting the people who make great art and culture happen in the villages, towns and cities in all four corners of England.
People deserve to be able to access great art and culture wherever they live in England.
That’s why, when I made my first speech as chief executive, I announced that we would be increasing the amount of our National Lottery revenue that we invest outside London to 75% by the end of 2018. That’s up from the previous position of 70% outside London and 30% inside the capital – in itself, an increase from the historic figure of 60%.
We want more artists to create more work in more centres of excellence across the country.
That means that we want to create an environment where a greater number of creative artists and organisations are based in places like Chester.
To do that, we need to work in partnership with other people who invest in arts and culture.
Storyhouse is a great example of this partnership working, with the Arts Council contributing £3 million towards the new building, reflecting the significance of nearly £33 million of investment by Cheshire West and Chester and also major support from MBNA, one of the area’s biggest employers.
It’s an exciting time for Chester, with Chester Performs and now Storyhouse ensuring that the city’s literature and music festivals are reaching new audiences. We have seen artistically excellent outdoor events in distinctive locations, such as the the evening cinema programme in the Roman gardens.
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Meanwhile, the Grosvenor Park theatre programme has gone from strength to strength, building critical acclaim year on year.
And the Chester Mystery Plays are taking live theatre to the big audiences, as seen by the recent performance of The Passion over Easter, which saw thousands of people on the city’s streets enjoying the performances of a fine cast of actors.
Both the Arts Council and Cheshire West and Chester are committed to building Chester’s rightful place among the UK’s leading cultural tourist destinations, but we’re not forgetting other parts of the county, where the audiences and infrastructure for arts and culture are less well developed.
While I was in Cheshire, I was hugely impressed by my visit to Whitby Hall in Ellesmere Port. It is home to Action Transport which has a remarkable reputation for drama by, with and for young people both locally and further afield.
Chester has great cultural riches, whether we’re talking about buildings such as the cathedral that have been around for a long time, or those like Storyhouse that are brand new.
The University of Chester has a proud tradition of producing outstanding creative individuals, many of whom have made or are making their home in the city. The university is demonstrating great vision in its proposals to work closely with Storyhouse to provide world class opportunities for its students and graduates. That’s just one example of Chester’s capacity to provide strong creative and artistic leadership.
At the Arts Council, we want to continue to invest in developing the city and wider borough as a hotbed of creativity both for professional artists and the general public.
When the doors of Storyhouse open, a new and exciting chapter in the story of the creative life of Chester and Cheshire will begin.