Council scores own-goal by closing Urbis

Article published: Thursday, February 25th 2010

This Saturday, Urbis’ pop culture exhibition centre will close its doors for the last time. The iconic building is due to re-open in August 2011 to house the National Museum Football, relocated from its former home in Preston. Debates over which guise is more interesting, profitable or “good for Manchester” have missed a vital point: deciding between the two was never necessary. “Costs” are not to blame. The Council are freely choosing to close a public, community-integrated and increasingly celebrated space.

The move only highlights their lack of concern for accessible arts and local provision. Their Executive Report on the subject reveals where their priorities lie: “bringing increased visitor spend to the surrounding retail and leisure outlets”.

High costs

With 250,000 visitors a year and 2009 recording their best annual trade, the exhibition centre has been growing in stature and popularity. It is not failing. Yet it seems to be the victim of a straight, financially-motivated swap: the Council will channel the centre’s £2 million annual funding directly into the NFM, which they hope will receive 400,00 visitors. There are additional costs involved, however, including £450,000 transportation and storage and an enormous £8 million capital investment to re-fit the building; the equivalent of four years running costs.

Despite their public insistence that the currently loss-making NFM will become highly profitable, the Council have struggled to find external funders to underwrite the sum. Their hoped-for backers, the North West Development Agency, stated last year that NFM trustees should, “make no presumptions about any future revenue or capital support from NWDA”.

At a meeting of city leaders in January, Manchester Council Chief Executive Sir Howard Bernstein admitted that taxpayers may be forced to foot the bill if third party funding could not be found.

£8 million is a striking figure. Countless other city centre buildings could have been refitted for less. Arguably the landmark is perceived as too valuable an asset for Manchester’s new jewel to miss out on. Yet no offer to re-house the existing centre has been made. It will simply cease to be. The money-conscious Council have meanwhile given a £500,000 boost to the Manchester International Festival, additional to its current £2 million funding. The heavily sponsored festival, which lasts just 18 days every other year, is regularly criticised for its lack of local relevance and high-pricing structures. It does, of course, tend to attract tourists with particularly deep pockets.

The NFM will also lose rent income once Channel M leaves. Money will be saved however, as staff cutbacks strip 73 of 110 staff from the payroll, mainly from public-facing projects, undermining the Council’s promise to maintain strong outreach programming. Many workers are bitterly disappointed at the closure and with the redundancy packages they have been offered. The Council is able to set redundancy rates as it controls the building but, because it is administered by a separate group, the Millennium Quarter Trust, staff have never been entitled to Council benefits such as the ‘Manchester minimum wage’.

Community losses

The Council promises to continue community outreach through football despite similar, better funded programmes already taking place through the Manchester United Foundation and Manchester City in the Community. Arts in the community, however, continues to be seriously underfunded and under supported.

The highly acclaimed RECLAIM project, based at Urbis, is at least set to continue. The project has worked with 12-14 year olds in 15 locations to create Manifestos expressing their aspirations and positive steps for community. Last year it won the prestigious Philip Lawrence Award. The galleries which showcased local and unexpected talents undoubtedly acted as inspiration for the manifestos and will, however, be a resource lost for RECLAIM.

Showcases and commissions for local artists will also be sorely missed as The Best of Manchester Awards come to an end. Family days, Adult Learning sessions and festivals such as Exodus refugee showcase, designed to welcome marginalised and low-income people to the arts, and donation only entry are the kind of local-focused initiatives unlikely to continue at NMF.

The loss of the unique centre should be mourned. While the centre failed to catch imaginations in its early years, a 2005 redesign embraced popular culture: music, fashion, television, even gardening. UK Hip-Hop; The Hacienda; Videogame Nation and the Art of The Black Panthers are among the consistently lauded recent exhibitions. It places Manchester in a global and historical context. Its Sound of Two Cities exhibition, which compared our music history to that of Detroit, Michigan was both innovative and subtly indicting. There is nowhere in the country like it.

The closing show, Urbis Has Left The Building, strikes a depressing note. As one visitor reflected, “I’ve seen some great things here but this look back only highlights the great future shows that we’re going to miss out on”.

Siobhan McGuirk

Photo credit: Meg Gailliard

* An earlier version of this article contained a factual inaccuracy concerning the RECLAIM project. Thanks to Jo for pointing out this error.

More: Culture, Manchester, News


  1. Interesting is the mention in the Lancashire press of Manchester council paying 100K this year for ‘storage costs’. Now, the storage is part of the Preston building, so is already paid.
    COuld this be a way of covering up for the fact that while 73 Mancunians are being made redundant, Manchester Council is paying for the employment of some of the Prestonian staff?

    Comment by Jim Collins on February 25, 2010 at 4:02 pm
  2. This move shows the extent to which a prolonged spell of power has corrupted the Council Executive. The arrogance in dismantling a much-loved, inclusive, community-orientated resource is simply breathtaking. Couple that with the blase dismissal of 70-odd Urbis staff and it really does make you shake your head. All these things are totally against everything the Council claims to stand for. Hope fully the people of Manchester will hit them where it hurts on local election day!

    Comment by Jacqueline on February 25, 2010 at 4:47 pm
  3. I remember going to see the Black Panther exhibition there and finding myself amazed on both a political and aesthetic level. I left Urbis inspired and impassioned. It is such a shame that the Council has decided to turn it into a cash-cow and its alleged treatment of the employees is scandalous.

    Comment by M on February 26, 2010 at 3:44 am
  4. There’s something real dodgy about this whole thing – especially after Vaughan Allen was given the chief exec job at Cityco pretty much straight afterwards. Jobs for the boys perhaps?

    Comment by Bob on February 27, 2010 at 12:47 am
  5. So your suggestion, Bob, is that I sold down the river my 120 close colleagues and abandoned the dream of four years’ very hard work for some extra cash?
    Either you’re living in a fantasy world or you’re not very bright.
    In reality, just as with my staff, I heard the announcement of change, didn’t have a job-offer on the table in the new organization and started applying. And got one.

    Comment by Vaughan on February 28, 2010 at 3:31 pm
  6. Can you explain then why the staff were advised everything was best done ‘in house’ not involving any of the unions? I think a lot of former staff feel they were sold out.

    The people who have been made redundant (with pitiful payouts) claim they’ve been treated very badly, particularly by the council, but also by the Urbis management.

    Comment by Bob on February 28, 2010 at 11:17 pm
  7. Bob, how many members of staff does your ‘a lot of former staff feel..’ and ‘the people being made redundant..’ actually cover? One? Two? You’ve had a pint with one, and this nonsense is the result.

    Both your allegations abut Unions and the comments on the payoffs are rubbish, and its interesting that you didn’t even bother to try and justify your original allegations.

    You keep to your worldview though. Please don’t let reality get in the way.

    Comment by Vaughan on March 1, 2010 at 1:33 pm
  8. I’ve met a few, and haven’t met any who feel that they were treated fairly during the whole thing. They also claim it is the feeling more. I’m obviously not going to name any of them on a public forum.

    How much redundancy are staff getting who were employed under two years? I’ve heard figures of around a week or two’s pay. As for the comment about the unions, is that not true? Again, this is what I’ve heard from former workers, who said Urbis management told them it would be to their benefit not to involve the unions.

    Apologies, I retract the ‘allegation’, which was meant more as a tongue-in-cheek remark, I have no evidence of it. I’m sure there was nothing premeditated about it. But who gave you the job at Cityco? It’s worth clearing up, since Richard Leese, Howard Bernstein and Steve Mycio are on the board – among other councillors – and they’re the ones at the council who decided to close Urbis.

    Comment by Bob on March 1, 2010 at 2:28 pm
  9. Apology accepted.
    People are more upset about losing their jobs, and losing Urbis than anything…
    Some had union representation in consultation, likewise those with low number of years in service (and by definition, the maximum servce could be eight years at Urbis) recieved more than they would have done under statutory OR MCC agreements (the latter being fairly generous compared to private sector).
    In answer, none of the three you mention were on the interview panel for any of the three interviews I had…but I have to assume some consultation would have taken place. Does that answer?

    Comment by Vaughan on March 1, 2010 at 3:02 pm
  10. I guess that’s it – people will wonder how much influence Bernstein, Leese and co would have had in that board discussion.
    It’s a great shame that Urbis has gone, and I think the article sums up the issues very well.

    Comment by Bob on March 1, 2010 at 4:58 pm
  11. I think that, aside from the staff issue which is of course very important, a lot of people feel let down that there wasn’t much of a fight to keep Urbis’ current centre open, in some guise, or finding another (cheaper?) location for the NFM.

    A side note on CityCo would be that artistic, local expression isn’t apparently high on their agenda. The kind of subversive thought and action behind, say, the Hidden Manchester or even the Hacienda exhibitions (both Urbis) don’t mesh well with a group that would see walking tours as a £2.5million “insurance risk”:

    Or perhaps those ones just weren’t run by the right kind of people?

    Their funding of a massive publicity boost for private shops pre-Christmas ( is perhaps more in keeping with the “lets scrap accessible arts and put in a football museum!” mentality.

    It will be interesting to see how Vaughan – who has been praised for re-invigorating Urbis – fits in at a place where money beats creativity every time.

    Comment by Siobhan on March 1, 2010 at 5:10 pm
  12. Well, conversations are still happening about some of the Urbis programme, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a ‘pop culture’ gallery in the city again.
    And I’d disagree with your characterisation of cityco (or I wouldn’t have joined). But that’s for another argument. Always happy to talk to the independent press you know…

    Comment by V on March 1, 2010 at 8:31 pm

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