The Lowry is a stunning arts centre which has rivitalised an area of Salford, once more famous for its chimney stacks and matchstick men, writes Gita Conn.
If numbers are anything to go by, one of the year's most successful newcomers is an exciting arts centre on the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal. Second only to the Tate Modern, which boasted a million visitors in its first 47 days, nearly half a million people passed through the Lowry's huge glass doors in the first four months after it opened in April. A large number of these have been children or pre-booked school parties; many more have simply turned up with their teachers.
"It's extraordinary," says education programme manager Lea Parkinson. "I cannot imagine any venue which would attract such a large number of spontaneous visits."
The centre is named after one of the area's favourite sons, Salford artist L S Lowry, and some of the 300 paintings and drawings in the L S Lowry collection on loan by Salford City Council are on display. The selection changes every three months.
The complex features a main gallery and three others, an interactive creative ArtWorks gallery, two theatres, the Lyric and the Quays, bars, a restaurant and shops.
The building itself is also a real crowd-puller. The spectacular bold structure dominates Salford Quays. Inside, swathes of stainless steel reflect light from its huge windows. The colossal spaces and combination of colours introduce a weirdly contradictory sense of stimulation and relaxation at the same time.
Children in particular love it, says Mr Parkinson. They actually notice the architecture as well as the building's contents. "It looks really fabulous," says Jake Lancaster, aged nine. "I could return a million times and I wouldn't be bored."
Creativity is the overwhelming ethos of The Lowry and its educational programmes. The Audiences Living and Learning (ALL)arts team works in partnership with visiting artists, companies and exhibitions to co-ordinate activities in the visual and performing arts. Children can draw, paint, sing, act, dance, choreograph, write and direct during various workshops, which are discounted for local schools.
In addition to in-house activities, the ALL arts team offers outreach events. These provide opportunities for professional artists to extend their work outside the galleries and theatres and visit schools and colleges.
ArtWorks - the Lowry's only exhibition area which charges an entrance fee - combines technological wizardry with interactive art, creative play, music and poetry. Its centrepiece is Creative Brian (pictured above left), designed by David Kemp. Visitors can operate a contraption which makes this giant head's features move, for instace, to move his eyes and open and close his mouth.
Brian reveals even more of the mysteries of the human brain, behind his ear, where visitors can actually enter his head to see what he is thinking.
In a series of rooms and spaces, visitors can create pictures and music just by moving around. "It's really cool," one boy enthuses. "You step on this sand and it changes into pictures of water, fire or even a brick wall."
Stephen Hetherington, chief executive of the Lowry, exercises adult restraint in his enthusiasm for the extent to which this millennium project has been a success. "Nearly every area of our trading activity is well above projections," he says. However, he cautions: "Visitor numbers are an indication, but they are a crude test of success.
"The kind of debate that goes on about the Millennium Dome is puerile. It is just too simplistic to believe that you can test the success of something like that simply by saying that it hasn't met its business plan. It's a wonderful piece of architecture, huge numbers of people visit it and it has a huge educational programme."
Mr Hetherington does not deny that the Lowry has had teething problems. He smiles as he recalls the theatre seats arriving the day before the opening.
He eschews comparisons with other projects, which all have different concepts.
"Arts and culture are two big, heavy words. Our discomfort with those words is that they seem to be pre-defining and demarcating activities so that you end up asking 'Is it art?' or 'Isn't it art?'. We did not wish to produce anything. We wanted to be a department store of creative work. We don't make it. We buy it and we sell it."
The Lowry, he believes, is all about human response and the relationship with the individual, particularly within the Salford community.
"We are likely to be a success," Mr Hetherington says cautiously. "The jury is still out on the more complex areas like how to we measure our success in integrating with our immediate community. It is not just a matter of saying, 'Well, they came'. It is going to take much longer to see whether we have created those relationships with the schools and with the individuals."
The Lowry, Pier 8, Salford Quays, Salford M5 2AZ.Schools line tel:0161 876 2003; email: allartsthelowry.org.uk
Open daily. Artworks from 10am, galleries from 11am, closing 5pm, 8pm or 10pm.
Group charges for workshops and performing arts activities.
Artworks pound;3 each for school groups, adults free 1:7 5s-7s; 1:10 8s-12s.
Schools are advised to book visits at least one month ahead.
Free teacher's briefing sheets and welcome tour (Thursdays 5-5.30pm - please book).