In 2023 we put together Levolution, an exhibition which ran from February through to September which an accompanying range of activities, workshops and commissions. The theme was local protest.
Prior to becoming Levenshulme Old Library, our building was simply Levenshulme Library. It was built in 1904 with an endowment of £2,500 from Scottish philanthropist Andrew Carnegie as well as £500 raised by local residents. For over a century it served the community as its local library.
In early 2013 it was announced that both the library and swimming baths which faces the library on the other side of the road would be closed with immediate effect. This resulted in the community coming together for months of widespread protest in the form of marches, sit-ins at the library and pools, flash-mob zumba routines and other creative forms of activism.
To mark ten years since these protests we put together Levolution! using images from those protests as well as homemade banners, t-shirts and other protest items, all sourced from within our community. Together they told the story of Levenshulme, its creativity and its resilience, as well as a wider stories of life under the shadow of a decade of austerity.
The protests themselves resulted in Manchester City Council agreeing to retain a local library service in Levenshulme, keeping the existing library building open while Arcadia Leisure Centre, a new facility, was built. Meanwhile, a group of local residents came together to develop a plan to repurpose the library building, transforming it into a community arts centre, which is where we are today.
Tony Gribben, a local photographer, was present at almost all of the protests. We worked with him to create the exhibition, alongside images sourced from out community, alongside items people made for the protests: banners, signs and clothing.
We received funding from Arts Council England, the Zuto Make a Difference Fund and We Love MCR to to stage a number of workshops. Our personal highlights included:
Journalism – we worked with our local independent newspaper, Levenshulme News, to create an edition which was created by young people in the community, focusing on the stories and issues which matter the most to them.
Banner Making – working with local artists, young people learned how to use their creativity to affect change in the world by making protest banners which were displayed in our foyer.
Photography – we invited residents who were in the original protest photographs to come and recreate their shot with original photographer Tony Gribben.
Protest song – we commissioned Claire Mooney, a protest singer and local resident who was active in the 2013 protests, to create a brand new protest son which was given a one-time only live performance to close off the exhibition.
In addition to these, we ran sessions on zine making, badge making, democracy for kids, creative writing and other practices. All of these were free to attend and open to everyone. In total, Levolution saw us bringing an audience of over 800 people through our doors, with the project in total reaching over 3,000 people and 17 local freelance creatives getting paid work.
We also received funding from the National Lottery Heritage to commission music and storytelling collective, Harp and a monkey, to develop an archive of oral histories with local residents about Levenshulme Old Library and the incredible community which surrounds us.
These memories were turned into an animated film celebrating the history of our building – from the days of Andrew Carnegie and the fight against its closure through to the Levenshulme Old Library we have today. This was screened at the Old Library as part of our exhibition closing event.
These are the tangible outputs of Levolution, however the story told by the exhibition as a whole, which is less quantifiable, is perhaps more important.
While our building was bustling with hundreds of people engaging with the exhibition and its activities – a portion of the tens of thousands who pass through our doors each year – the former swimming baths across the road remained empty.
As well as facing one other across a single road, both of these buildings were constructed in the early years of the twentieth century and for decades served their communities side by side. Today, however, their different fates are clear to even the most casual observer. Levenshulme Old Library has become a hub for local residents, generating opportunities for local artists, fostering residents’ engagement with their creativity, and supporting small businesses by providing a low-cost venue.
Meanwhile, the former swimming baths, left to the elements, it now stands as a bleak, boarded-up monument to neglect.
The lesson here is that, with the right support and resources, communities are capable of taking on the neglected spaces in their neighbourhoods, bringing to them activity and connection.