“Who’s in charge?” Dismay as plan to rejuvenate Astley Cheetham Gallery turned down
Tuesday 3rd July 2018 14:28 Community News Stalybridge Tameside Posted by Tom Greggan

A local group of artists have questioned the power structure at Tameside Council after clashing with officers over the future of the Astley Cheetham Art Gallery in Stalybridge.

The gallery, situated above Stalybridge Library, is currently open for just two days a month.

But a joint initiative, between Stalybridge Town Team and Gordon Clegg & Hilary Cope of the People’s Gallery (pictured top), put forward a proposal for the gallery to host at least three exhibitions per year from nationally renowned artists, alongside discussions, lectures and workshops about the artist’s work.

A voluntary Friends group would be formed to work in partnership with the council and any money raised would be put back into the running, maintenance and promotion of the gallery.

Backing

The proposal received substantial backing from Stalybridge’s councillors, Jonathan Reynolds MP and the executive members for buildings and culture at the time. Dukinfield/Stalybridge councillor, Dave Sweeton, said of the proposal: “All the surveys, in terms of economic development, tell us that if you’ve got a semi-successful art gallery in a town, then the benefits are enormous. It gave us the opportunity to use this as a catalyst and a springboard to go on. It’s a no-brainer to maximise something like that to the full.”

After years of frustratingly slow discussions, the volunteers- together with their local councillors and MP- held a meeting with Ian Saxon, the Director of Operations and Neighbourhoods and Emma Varnam, the Assistant Director for Stronger Communities.

The proposal was turned down.

Explaining the decision, a Tameside Council spokesperson said: “We value and welcome the community wishing to get involved and volunteer to help keep our services sustainable for the future and in some cases this works well. We have had approaches from a group of volunteers who want to run the gallery at Stalybridge – potentially with some commercial interest – and we have met with them. However, they have not put a robust and credible proposal on the table that addresses some of our basic concerns e.g. insurance, risk assessments and security etc.

“The gallery at Stalybridge is not a secure stand-alone unit, it is an integral part of the library building – one of the borough’s prestigious public buildings – and it is essential that any plans for its future take this and – our concerns outlined above – into account. We are considering how we can make more use of the gallery and ensure this great asset can be enjoyed as much as possible by the community.”

Disagreement

But Dukinfield/Stalybridge Cllr Dave Sweeton disagrees and says the proposal would have been feasible. “We weren’t asking the library to be open for any hours it wasn’t already open, so there was no cost implications there,” he said.

“Gordon and the team would do at least three exhibitions and then the gallery could do what they needed to do with the Cheetham collection. It would have been a rolling programme. The Friends group would run the social media, we’d dovetail with the council stuff and there would be no cost implications. It was win-win.”

Gordon, who has been at the People’s Gallery for 19 years, also argued against the reasons given, saying the volunteers do not stand to gain anything commercially from the proposal.

“We are not going to make anything out of this,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot of hard work and I’m 71! I want to do it because I want the people of Stalybridge and Tameside to see this wonderful art.

“If we’d lost the battle because it just wasn’t feasible then I’d hold my hands up and say we did our best, but it’s nonsense. We haven’t had a single thing in writing to say why we can’t do this.”

Frustration

Gordon expressed his anger that the proposal could be turned down despite having significant support from elected officials. He also denied the allegation that there is a commercial interest for the volunteers.

He said: “At this meeting, Jonathan Reynolds was there, Cllr Dave Sweeton and Cllr Janet Jackson was there, as was myself and Hillary. Two non-elected people sat opposite us with their arms folded, saying no to everything. I said, “Hang on a minute now, what’s the pecking order here?”

“We had taxpayers, elected councillors, an elected MP all on board; everybody was for it except those two. What’s going on? Who is calling the shots? Who is running the town?

And Cllr Sweeton shared Gordon’s frustrations. “It’s a very disappointing end to what would have been a great opportunity to maximise an under utilised facility,” he said. “As politicians we need to have the confidence of the electorate to be able to deliver the right and vital schemes to push our towns and communities forward so I can fully understand Gordon’s feelings.”