It’s the UK’s first arts centre to sign a deal with the Ministry of Justice

It’s already seen Manchester Central, the city’s leading conference centre, become a temporary ‘Nightingale’ hospital. Now 2020 has inspired a change that’s perhaps stranger still...that of arts centre to a court. The Lowry in Salford is the UK’s first arts centre to have secured a contract as an interim Nightingale Court and is due to host its first cases on 28th September. 

In these singular times, it’s a win-win situation. The income will help ensure the art gallery and theatre’s survival, safeguarding hundreds of jobs while social distancing measures make indoor events economically challenging. The partnership will also help the government alleviate the pressure on courts and tribunals resulting from the pandemic; with many courtrooms too small to accommodate the current ‘1-metre-plus’ rule.

Judges based at The Lowry will hear civil, family and tribunal work as well as criminal cases.

2020 09 22 Lowry Nightingale Court
The Lowry in Salford has signed a deal with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) to become a temporary ‘Nightingale Court’

It remains an uncertain time for performing arts, which nationally reached stage four (socially distanced indoor performances) of the reopening ‘roadmap’ outlined by culture secretary Oliver Dowden on 15th August; in most of Greater Manchester, this was the even later date of 8th September due to local lockdown restrictions.

With social distancing crippling capacities, and therefore profit margins, many venues continue to await that elusive stage five - full reopening - as anything else is unfeasible. The Lowry is one of few venues to announce winter 2020 performances and brave necessary empty seats, the economic impact of which its fellow arts centre HOME has highlighted in a brutally honest campaign.         

Julia Fawcett OBE, chief executive of The Lowry, said: “Like arts venues up and down the country, we simply cannot operate our building as normal in the current climate. And with no regular source of income since March, this partnership provides vital funds to enable us to relaunch our programme.

2020 09 22 Julia Fawcett Obe Ceo The Lowry
Julia Fawcett OBE, chief executive of The Lowry

“This includes online, open-air and community performances by some of the UK’s most creative dance, circus and theatre companies as well as creative engagement activities that will improve the mental health & life chances of more than 2000 young people in Salford.

“Furthermore, we hope to spread the benefit of this partnership across Greater Manchester by commissioning new work from local artists specifically designed for the post-COVID audience environment.” 

The MOJ partnership supports the venue’s plans for Christmas - with performances of the hit musical SIX and family favourite The Gruffalo set to go ahead in the venue’s Lyric Theatre, which does not form part of this partnership. The galleries will also re-open at weekends from 1st November, when the court will not be sitting.

2020 09 22 Six Musical
The Lowry will host hit musical Six this winter

Securing a Nightingale Court contract isn’t the only imaginative scheme The Lowry has enacted this year. In June, it announced plans to launch its own job retention scheme for contracted employees when the government’s ends on 31st October. With 90% of staff enrolling on the scheme or working as part of a skeleton crew throughout the closure, the Salford institution is working to avoid a wide-scale compulsory redundancy programme.

While such measures aren’t possible for many arts venues, The Lowry’s story highlights just what it takes to survive in a COVID climate. With no sign of the pandemic abating soon, and furlough set to end in October, the industry remains in a dangerous limbo.

Can performing arts pull through without further support? Unfortunately the jury is out.

Read more: Manchester arts and culture - What’s reopening when?