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Arts Impact Fund
The arts centre in Wigan is using investment to transform a derelict former hotel into an arts hub for the area.
Isn’t it exciting to see something old being repurposed, remixed and returned to something new? From decades-old music finding a new audience, to rummaging through vintage clothes, it often seems like we’re in a perpetual process of cultural renewal. When it comes to buildings however, things get a little bit more precarious: it’s all too easy to witness examples of cultural icons being regenerated beyond all recognition or demolished altogether, severing our connection to the physical, lived-in past – something that is surely all the more important in an increasingly digital culture.
The Old Courts Arts Centre in Wigan is a great example of how the arts can breathe a new lease of life into an old physical space. Established as a Community Interest Company in 2010 and initially based in a former mill, since 2014 it has found itself in an expansive Victorian courthouse, Gerrard Winstanley House, in the heart of the town. Within its walls, The Old Courts hosts everything from live music to theatre, specialist schools to artists’ studios, public debates to weddings. Where magistrates once passed judgement on those falling foul of the law, rapt audiences witness everything from tragedy to comedy.
"The Old Courts Arts Centre in Wigan is a great example of how the arts can breathe a new lease of life into an old physical space."
Being the only major arts centre in the borough, The Old Courts has a lot of responsibility fostering cultural participation and channelling creative energies of people young and old. For example, its School of Rock programme connects school-age children interested in showcasing their music with expert tutors who facilitate song-craft and performance. In theatre, The Old Courts runs groups for children and adults and frequently collaborates with a local drama and performing arts college. Across all art forms, there are regular opportunities for participants to perform through different formats and spaces in the historic courthouse.
In 2017, there arose an opportunity to purchase the former Grand Hotel in Wigan, a now derelict site two-minutes walk away from The Old Courts. This 42-bedroom mock-Tudor site would allow the organisation to expand its provision of artist studio space as well as add a new performance venue. It would also allow The Old Courts to provide dedicated workspace and equipment on a membership model for early-stage entrepreneurs in the digital creative industries and provide in-house accommodation for artists visiting the borough, resulting in substantial cost-savings.
The Old Courts approached the Arts Impact Fund for a £590,000 loan to fund the acquisition of the Grand Hotel, to be repaid from operating surpluses and future fundraising. It was able to demonstrate an impressive track record, having grown the number of its activities and income streams significantly between 2014-2017. At the same time, its entrepreneurial executive team were able to develop and implement a bespoke software platform, which automated many business processes such as events booking, invoice raising and tracking social impact metrics – resulting in significant cost efficiencies, especially when compared with organisations of a similar kind. The Arts Impact Fund team is keen to share more about this system in order to prompt reflection within the arts sector about the most effective ways to handle business processes – we’ll be writing on this topic again in the future.
Together, the growth in revenue coupled with a strong handle on costs meant that The Old Courts has been a highly profitable venture to-date, and over the last three years has been able to significantly re-invest in renovating the aged Gerrard Winstanley House. These facts, coupled with a robust forward-looking financial model and close working relationships with, amongst others, Wigan Borough Council, gave the Arts Impact Fund confidence in The Old Courts and Grand Hotel as an investment proposition. Not only will this contribute a thriving cultural scene in Wigan, but it will also preserve a key piece of physical heritage for future generations to come.