The University is a partner of Light House in Wolverhampton – a media hub which develops and supports the growing creative industries in the region. We talked to Chief Executive Frank Challenger to discover more about Light House and how creativity in the city is being harnessed through joint working.
A striking photography exhibition showing young carers in Belfast is prominently displayed. Groups of students chatter over coffee. Posters and leaflets promote an array of interesting cultural events and forthcoming film features. A buzz surrounds Light House Wolverhampton.
From relatively small beginnings as Wolverhampton’s Media Centre, housed in accommodation within the Central Art Gallery, it has grown into a thriving centre for media. With the support of the University of Wolverhampton, City Council and other partners, Chief Executive Frank Challenger was able to turn a creative vision into a reality. “There were visionary people, willing to make things happen,” he says.
He came to Wolverhampton in 1986, following roles with the Regional Arts Association, running an area office in Stoke together with responsibility for film, video, television and photography. His brief was to help set up a media centre for Wolverhampton but he decided to apply to run it too and never looked back.
Initially it was managed by just Frank, then a new post of ‘Keeper of Media’, but today the team has expanded to around 30 staff. In the early stages, Frank decided to feature a film programme. These fledgling screenings were a far cry from the cinema at Light House today.
He set up a makeshift ‘cinema’ by knocking a wall through his office, buying a screen, curtains and 16mm projector. The films were initially screened to around 35 people. As he started getting newer films and more interest, he moved the screenings to the University’s Arena Theatre. “Everyone was really helpful and organisations pulled together.”
The media training side was also developing rapidly and the number of events being organised was increasing.
One of the first big exhibitions was to mark the 40th anniversary of the independence of India. The work of photographer Sunil Janah, who had been in India during that period and had images of Ghandi among his work, was displayed.
There was also a showing of the Richard Attenborough film, Ghandi, interviews with the photographer and a booklet which sparked controversy with some of the views expressed by Mr Janah, a former communist. Frank did not feel the need to remove these leaflets, choosing the option of opening debate and discussion instead.
Another memorable project was The World in Wolverhampton. This involved 20 schools, as well as a professional writer and photographers, and celebrated how the city has links with the rest of the world, through migration and trade. It was displayed at the Art Gallery and toured around the schools.
As Light House developed, a more suitable location was needed. The Chubb Buildings had been saved from demolition in the 70s and were being used for light industry.
The buildings were redeveloped as partly purpose-built accommodation, officially opening in 1991, with an extension created to house the new cinema.
The day Light House opened, the last remaining cinema in Wolverhampton had closed the previous night. Frank had no idea this was going to happen. When it was suggested that this made the timing even better, he shakes his head.
“We were opening as an alternative offering, then suddenly we found we had to fill a gap.” The first film shown was a free screening of Tim Burton’s fantasy fairytale Edward Scissorhands, but Frank and the team had to consider their future offering carefully. By the following summer, they were premiering the blockbuster Jurassic Park to a mainstream Wolverhampton audience. “That was our biggest film at that stage.”
This family audience, which peaked during Easter and the summer holidays, was shortlived, however. The multiplex Cineworld opened in Wednesfield in the mid 90s and Frank eventually returned to his original ‘alternative’ plans.
“We have a mixed programme of film and are happy to experiment with something different. I like all kinds of genres; I do know more about avant-garde film but you have to look at what audiences want,” he says.
Recently, a Music on Screen season has proved very successful. This unique season of opera, ballet and music, including notable cinematic interpretations and exclusive presentations from leading opera and ballet companies, has brought the theatre to the big screen. Ambitious future plans could include a live satellite link to performances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Frank has also worked with the University for its film studies degree and liaises closely with staff who champion creativity. In addition to film, there is a strong offering of production courses, new exhibitions, educational activities, conferences and events.
The University is a key partner in the Deaf Film and TV Festival, Deaffest, held annually at Light House, which features a packed programme of films, panel discussions, networking opportunities and social events. It features many of the University’s graduates; several young filmmakers in the Deaf Community have studied at Wolverhampton and other Deaf graduates have worked in television and film.
Frank is still enthusiastic about developing creative industries further in the future. “The creative industries have become more recognised. I believe they have a more central role in the economic development of the city now and there is still more to be done.”
He is Chair of Wolverhampton Creative Industries Forum, made up of various organisations, including the University, working to promote this important area and raise the region’s profile.
“We realised we should all be working together more. We’re not in competition; it’s about bringing things together for the benefit of the city as a whole. Different assets need to work closely together for a cultural milieu.” He also joined the University’s Arts and Creative Industries Cluster Group. “I personally think the University has a very strong role in the creative industries. It has a huge arts and media offering.
“There is much still to be achieved for creative industries in the region. Working together, there is so much potential.”