Friday, 26 February 2010
Just a few weeks after I wrote about the closure of Foundry in East London, another arts venue is closing its doors. This time it is Manchester's Urbis, which will be closing tomorrow for the last time, before being transformed into its new incarnation as the National Football Museum.
Part centre for pop culture, part city museum, Urbis - which describes itself as "an exhibition centre about city life" focusing on "contemporary art and design, music, fashion, popular culture and the people who make our cities what they are" - will, for me at least, always be connected with Manchester's renaissance. It was originally designed and built in the wake of the 1996 IRA bomb that completely reconfigured the Manchester of my childhood (complete with original dark satanic mills) to the infinitely sharper and shinier Manchester of the present day. The Urbis building was a key part of the transformative process: a gleaming contemporary architectural icon at the very heart of the new-look city, or as Iain Sinclair has rather more eloquently put it "an icon for the new theology of capital and regeneration".
Like many of the others who have written about Urbis's impending closure, over the years I have had mixed feelings about it as an exhibition venue. Perhaps that's partly because of the building itself - a bold, shiny structure which always seems to have more in common with the nearby department stores and retail developments than the historic buildings that surround Cathedral Gardens, and which seems to imbue the very artworks themselves with a sense of all things corporate and commercial. Or perhaps it is something to do with the programme, or indeed with the very nature of trying to capture what Urbis CEO Vaughan Allan has described as the "still-living, still-developing expressions of popular activity... [that] can't be captured and can't be (literally) encased."
Nevertheless, Manchester's "glittering pop cultural palace" has given us some great moments in its short history, not least the excellent Best of Manchester awards, which had shown signs of becoming a genuine Manchester institution in their own right. Most importantly I think, Urbis provided an important space to explore and share ideas that we wouldn't usually encounter in the average contemporary art space - be it hip hop, manga, guerilla gardening, punk or computer games. The final exhibition, Urbis Has Left the Building, brings together many of these highlights, in a celebratory retrospective of Urbis's history, but ultimately leaves us wondering what will fill the gap.
That's the funny thing about Manchester though: it always surprises you. It may look like the end of the road for Urbis now, but in a city that's all about reinvention, you never really know what might happen next.