The Astley Cheetham Art Gallery: Tameside’s Hidden Treasure?

Why has Tameside MBC’s only art gallery attracted fewer visitors than this blog?

Here’s a question for you. In 2018, how many people visited the Astley Cheetham Art Gallery in Stalybridge? Is it: (a) 59,000?; (b) 5,900?; or is it (c) 590?

Believe it or not, the answer is (c). That’s right, 590 visitors in the 26 days it was open in 2018. Or 22.69 visitors per Saturday from 10am to 2pm. In the 2017 – 2018 season, Stalybridge Celtic’s average attendance was 315 per home game in all competitions over 23 home matches.

Throughout 2018, a total of 5,541 spectators passed through the turnstiles at Bower Fold over eighteen home games (excluding friendlies) – an average of 307.8 fans per game. With East of the M60, it isn’t unusual to see 590 people frequenting this blog over a two-day period.

Thankfully for this year, Tameside MBC has increased the opening hours of the Astley Cheetham Library’s Art Gallery. It has been increased to 17 hours a week. Before 2010, the Astley Cheetham Art Gallery was open every afternoon and all day Saturdays except Thursdays and Sundays.

Why, might you ask is the Astley Cheetham Library’s art gallery’s seemingly the borough’s best kept secret? Surely, it cannot be anything to do with its location; it is slap bang in the centre of Stalybridge. As part of any future historical walks, this building along with the Victoria Market Hall has to be included. Here’s what we think are the following factors.

It’s not in Ashton-under-Lyne

The above statement could be seen in two ways. The first one is the residents’ perception (well, at least outside of Ashton) that Tameside MBC’s administrative centre gets everything in terms of the borough’s cultural offerings. We forget that since the Tories’ continued attack on public sector finances that Ashton-under-Lyne hasn’t come off unscathed.

Ashton may have a nice new library, but it has lost the Setantii and Waterworks museums. Due to the Tameside One works, The Museum of the Manchesters has been closed since 2015. This has nothing to do with the spending cuts at all (unlike the other two museums).

The second one is that to anyone living outside of Tameside, Ashton-under-Lyne is the only game in town. From Manchester you can get a train, tram or bus to Ashton-under-Lyne for at least 18 hours a day. Travelling to Stalybridge is easier by train than bus, and the Metrolink system hasn’t reached Stalybridge yet. A tourist that chooses to visit one part of our borough is akin to an overseas tourist who visits England, yet only visits London.

Public transport connections

On this blog, you will have noticed our references over the shortcomings of Tameside’s buses, trains and trams. Getting to Stalybridge by bus can be fairly straightforward from Ashton or other parts of Stalybridge (Carrbrook, Millbrook, Copley, etc). From Hyde and Mossley, less so especially after 7pm. As for getting from Stalybridge to Audenshaw, Denton or Droylsden, forget it unless you don’t mind changing in Ashton.

The Astley Cheetham Library and Art Gallery is a short walk from the bus stops by the war memorial on Trinity Street/Waterloo Road/Market Street junction. The railway station is only a modest walk too, but you wouldn’t know that as the signpost on the station forecourt only points to Ashton-under-Lyne’s attractions and Tameside College. (Here’s where a Stalybridge Heritage Walk could mitigate these factors a little.)

Private transport commotions

Off-street and on-street parking in Stalybridge remains a sore point with overzealous enforcement officers. With the town centre’s compact size, the use of public transport should be greatly encouraged. The only problem is, under the deregulated environment, there is little we can do as bus operators determine the timetables and set the fares.

If you are new to Stalybridge and decided to enter the town in your own narrowboat, where are the direction signs? What about cyclists? Better signposting to the Astley Cheetham Library and Art Gallery should be added from mooring facilities and cycle lockers.

Accessibility issues

The biggest pain in the proverbial is accessibility for wheelchair users and pushchairs. At present there isn’t any to the first floor of the Astley Cheetham Library which houses the art gallery. This has been expressed by Stalybridge councillors in the Tameside Reporter. Councillor Eleanor Wills said she would “fail residents” if she didn’t raise such issues.

Councillor Leanne Feeley said, “Obviously we’d love to have a lift in the building, it’s quite complicated, it’s a listed building and would require significant investment but that is something we aware of, we’re discussing and looking for opportunities.”

Therefore, where to place the lift without spoiling the building is a major issue. Having a lift tower poking out of the roof of the reference section could disfigure the building a little and undermine its Listed Building Status. Placing it in the middle of the entrance lobby would mean moving the librarian’s issuing desk.

Having a lift near the side staircase could replace or complement the wheelchair user’s ramp entrance. One problem is security issues during Open+ hours. What if the lift breaks down outside staffed hours?

Ellen Barnes Bequest Lectures and other events

Before Stalybridge Civic Hall opened in the Victoria Market Hall building, the Ellen Barnes Bequest Lectures were held in the Astley Cheetham Art Gallery. In 2010, they were moved to the Stalybridge Civic Hall due to improved accessibility. The loss of these lectures – from their spiritual home as well as the lecture programme itself – may well be a factor.

The borough’s only art gallery has had four exhibitions on over the last year. This library’s activities (and other libraries within the borough) are publicised in Tameside MBC’s biannual Culture Tameside brochure and on the TMBC Culture Twitter feed. Many of which you find are hosted at the Portland Basin Museum, which may give the assumption to some residents that it is the only game in town.

Before you point all your “Ashton Gets Everything” daggers towards the screen, the Astley Cheetham Library and Art Gallery’s accessibility issues is a major factor. The Portland Basin Museum has lifts and off-street parking. It has the advantage of being close to a big ASDA store, an iconic mill, and being of modest walking distance to and from Ashton town centre. Oh, and it also benefits from Tameside’s bus network being fairly Ashton-centric.

* * *

Are we mithered about the arts?

Have we fallen out of love with the arts? In Tameside it would be sad if that was the case. If you go to The People’s Gallery or the Hawthorn Gallery in Stalybridge, our love of the visual arts is alive and well. Likewise with POP in Hyde which has live music and film showings. From amateur dramatics groups to brass bands, a lot of our creative success is due to grassroots activity.

Any grassroots movement needs a solid base to work from, particularly in relation to funding and infrastructure. At one time, the Dukinfield Amateur Operatics group used Tameside Hippodrome for its shows. The theatre on Oldham Road has been dark since the 01 April 2008. This leaves 210,000 citizens without a professional theatre on their doorstep.

At local government level, spending cuts have forced local authorities across the UK to treat the arts as a ‘nice to have luxury’. As a consequence, funding for our local theatres, art galleries, public libraries have been slashed. They are now more dependent on private contributions – whether sponsorship, subscriptions and donations.

In our schools, central government has forced our local authorities and Academy Trusts to focus on STEM subjects. All at the expense of Art and Music, which has seen music lessons disappear from the curriculum.

If you look at the bigger picture, our present government has done nothing to widen artistic participation. They see it as a distraction that ‘the great unwashed’ aren’t worthy of enjoying or exploring. Perhaps they fear being outsmarted by a 20-year-old from Ridge Hill who’s a mathematical genius, because they could play Eric Ball’s Resurgam with ease. Or someone from Brushes Estate who could read James Joyce’s Ulysses in their teens.

At a Stalybridge level, we need to look at why people cannot get to the Astley Cheetham Art Gallery (accessibility, transport, opening hours). Hence the Stalybridge Councillors campaigning for improved access for all visitors. Perhaps we need to promote the Astley Cheetham Art Gallery alongside the private galleries in the same town.

At a Tameside level, this means raising greater awareness of the gallery’s exhibitions beyond biannual brochures, local press and Twitter. Further social media channels should be considered – Instagram and Facebook especially (perhaps with a separate account for the Astley Cheetham Art Gallery). If we need to go further, how about a Tameside equivalent to Time Out which promotes all exhibitions and creative activities in the borough – public, private, and voluntary sector?

In a nutshell, improved publicity, accessibility and transport options, should be the difference between Astley Cheetham Art Gallery getting 5,900 visitors or 590 visitors per annum. Changing the mindset of “Tameside equals Ashton” instead of “Tameside equals all the nine towns” would also be a good help.

S.V., 30 October 2019.

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