Dream at 10: a retrospective

It all began in October 2005, when Channel 4 invited the nation to get involved in the Big Art Project, a proposed television series that would inspire local communities to create public artworks that would become lasting physical legacies.

Sean Durney, the then Arts Officer for St.Helens Council, nominated the former Sutton Manor colliery site as one of six that would feature in the TV programmes. Sean wasn't alone, however, as more than one thousand four hundred people across the UK also nominated sites within their own local communities.

With so much competition it was clearly going to be tough to make the final cut but the St.Helens bid had an edge as a former miner's focus group had been quickly formed to partner St.Helens Council. The former pit men have a strong connection with their old workplace in Sutton Manor and were keen for a form of memorial on the site. Gary Conley became the lead spokesperson for the St.Helens Big Art Project Focus Group.

Gary started work as a miner when he was 16, following in his father's and grandfather's footsteps and worked at the colliery from 1974 until its closure in 1991. He then retrained and now works for St Helens Council where he is a Cultural Co-ordinator. Other former pitmen on the steering group were Mel Moran, Frank Leech, Terry Murray, Ste Conlin, Chris Sephton, John Hamon Snr., John Hamon Jnr, Dave Stevens and Tommy Frodsham who all played important roles on the committee.

The logistics of making a large-scale art project a reality are not for the faint-hearted, so the council's input was invaluable. The then leader of the council, Cllr. Brian Spencer, had also been employed at Sutton Manor and as you might expect was a keen supporter of the project. In fact the local authority in St.Helens had considered a public art project for the borough back in 2003, so didn't need too much persuading.

Important behind the scenes council contributions were also made by John Whaling (Economic Development Manager who was also the Dream Project Manager), Bob Hepworth (Director Urban Regeneration & Housing), Wally Ashcroft (Executive Member for Culture, Sport and Heritage), plus Paul Kelly and Tanya Humphries of Helena Housing.

The council also recruited Laurie Peake of art commissioning agency Liverpool Biennial, to act as curator for the project. Laurie had only recently commissioned Anthony Gormley's work on Crosby Beach entitled 'Another Place' and she provided expert advice to the ex-miners.

Channel 4 commissioned independent production company Carbon Media to make the TV series and recruited a number of art and regeneration experts to sift through the applications, within months they had announced a shortlist of twelve sites, which included the St.Helens bid.

The selection panel then had the tough task of narrowing down the dozen sites to the six that would feature in the series. They travelled the country meeting the nominators, proposed funders, public authorities and landowners. Many of the nominees didn't have the support of their local authority, so the St.Helens team that comprised the ex-miners focus group, St.Helens Council and Liverpool Biennial were quietly confident of success.

So imagine the disappointment when in April 2006, the six winning sites were announced and the former Sutton Manor Colliery site had missed out from the UK's biggest ever public art commissioning scheme. The Big Art Project would instead comprise communities in Burnley, Cardigan, Isle of Mull, Newham in East London, North Belfast and Sheffield. All the planning and discussions with proposed stakeholders and funders had come to nothing. Or had it? It soon occurred to all concerned that the publicity from a television series would have been an added bonus and there was no reason why the St.Helens proposal couldn't go ahead independently.

There were many hurdles to overcome but much groundwork had already been done, Consequently, Channel 4's Commissioning Editor for Arts, Jan Young-Husband, became impressed by the enthusiasm of the St.Helens team and in November 2006, the Project's governing body, the Big Art Trust, decided to review its decision and include the Sutton Manor site as a seventh location. Peter Jenkinson, founding director of the Walsall Art Gallery and Big Art advisory team member said: 'The enthusiasm and humour of the former miners we have already interviewed at Sutton Manor will certainly make for engaging television. The St.Helens project is a worthy addition to the series, and we have no doubt that it can be delivered due to the dedication and commitment of all those involved.'

The inclusion in C4's Big Art Project was a welcome boost to the efforts of all concerned. All that was needed now was an artist and a piece of art! A detailed design brief had been created and members of the Big Art Project Focus Group in St.Helens made research trips to see the Angel of the North in Gateshead and public art in the Ruhr Valley in Germany.

Behind the scenes a lot of work was taking place to get the funding in place and to maximise involvement in the project. On March 28th 2007 the St.Helens Big Art Project was officially launched at the World of Glass by Channel 4 in front of invited guests from the business, arts and regeneration communities. Then on April 30th 2007, Channel 4 broadcast a short taster for the Big Art TV series in 'Three Minute Wonder' featuring the former St.Helens miners walking in the Sutton Manor woodland as St.Helens comedian Johnny Vegas read Brian Salkeld's touching poem 'Memories'. The Thatto Heath funnyman's fee for his narration … two steak pies from Livesleys!

Committee meetings were held in the then Smithy Manor pub and in May a shortlisting evening was held in which renowned Catalan artist Jaume Plensa was invited to submit a proposal. It was quite a coup to get someone of his stature involved with Laurie Peake of the Liverpool Biennial organisation playing a key role in his recruitment.

On July 23rd the announcement was made that the commission to design the artwork at the Manor had been accepted by Jaume Plensa. Jaume was born in Barcelona and has exhibited all over the world. His most famous commission is the iconic Crown Fountain located in the centre of Chicago and his public artworks include a laser beam light which fitted perfectly the then working title 'ex terra lucem' (From the earth cometh light).

On July 26th the St.Helens Star printed the story on the front page of its weekly paper in an article entitled 'Our Angel'. Although there'd been some local publicity previously, this was the biggest so far and a backlash quickly began! Unfortunately, the newspaper had not indicated the funding sources in its piece and so some readers assumed that the then estimated cost of £700,000 would be coming out of their council tax. So John Whaling of St Helens Council sent his own letter to the Star (16/8/2007) pointing out that the funds were not transferable for other uses:

'In response to letters relating to the Channel 4 Big Art Project in St Helens, I can assure the local community that none of the funding for this exciting initiative is coming from Council taxpayers' money. The £700,000 we have successfully secured so far is all from external funding sources, namely the Arts Council, North West Coalfield Communities Regeneration Programme, a Forestry Commission endowment specifically ringfenced for public art, and the Local Enterprise Growth Initiative. In other words, none of the funding could otherwise be used to pay for statutory Council or other mainstream public services such as education, or social or health care.'

Back at the Smithy Manor, the mining focus group had come to the decision that they did not want a literal mining monument but instead an art structure that as well as referencing the past, would breath new life into the site and be admired by thousands of visitors. Gary Conley takes up the story:

'When Jaume Plensa first came to our site he initially looked at it through our eyes, but we didn't want that. We wanted an artist to come and look at it through his own eyes, while fulfilling our remit to reference the past but look towards something in the future. So we had to say what he showed us first of all, wasn't what we were after. He then asked us if we'd like to see his original idea, which he had scrapped because he didn't think we'd like it. We said 'Yes', and that led to Dream. Jaume was shocked to find that although we were ex-miners we didn't want something like a mining monument, but were after something contemporary that people would ask questions about, something that would take St Helens into the future inspiring the next generations.'

Although the Dream concept was first discussed by the focus group in October 2007, it took until the late Spring of 2008 before a model could be unveiled to the media and public and details disclosed.

In the meantime the community engagement programme - of which one strand was called 'Big Art's Little Art' (after C4's 'Big Brother's Little Brother' show) - continued with more than 3,000 local people attending 24 public exhibitions and 60 ambassadors signed up to help promote the Big Art Project in St.Helens. The residents of St.Helens were invited to rearrange the letters 'National Coal Board Sutton Manor Colliery' to create a motto to herald the future of the town.

On May 7th 2008 the model of Jaume Plensa's creation was unveiled to considerable publicity. It was confirmed that it would be called Dream and take the form of the head of a young female, her eyes closed in quiet contemplation. Criticism was again poured onto the project with a huge number of comments posted to the St.Helens Star's online news article, 'Spectacular Artwork Unveiled' dated 7th May 2008, with the vast majority highly negative. Here's one : "It's a big, stretched girls head. What in gods name has that got to do with our town, how does it represent the mining industry?"

Although the reaction from many people was disappointing, the focus group were undaunted, especially as on their research trip to Gateshead they'd learnt that Gormley's 'Angel of the North' had endured similar criticism whilst in its planning stages and upon being unveiled. Not only is art subjective but public art in particular can take time before it attains public acceptance.

The next step was getting planning permission for the artwork. Although the council was essentially applying to itself for permission, it wasn't a case of a simple rubber-stamping, as it was a different section and committee within the authority that had to consider the application in great detail.

The team had a setback at the end of August when the Highways Agency objected to the proposed lighting up of Dream on the grounds that it would distract drivers on the adjacent M62 motorway. Jaume Plensa's signature is in creating artworks with light and so illumination had been an integral part of the proposal. The intention is for one light to emanate from Dream's head and travel two kilometres into the air. This would represent the former Colliery's mine shaft and the young girl's thoughts and dreams. Illumination would, however, only be used sparingly to mark celebrations or special occasions.

By this time Channel 4 had realised that Dream would be the mainstay of its Big Art Project TV series and on three occasions postponed its provisional transmission dates to fit in with the St.Helens schedule, finally settling on May 10th 2009 for the first programme. Much had to happen in the months prior to this date, including obtaining planning consent. This was granted by St. Helens Council on September 9th 2008, and at last the work could begin in earnest. The team's delight was tempered by the confirmation that Dream could not - at least for the time being - be illuminated.

Evans Concrete of Derbyshire had won the contract to fabricate Dream in a total of 90 individual panels of pre-cast concrete which would be conveyed to St.Helens in sections. The head comprised 54 panels and 36 made up the plinth.

From March 16th 2009 the first of the 90 panels started arriving at Sutton Manor. The manufacturer Evans, used a Spanish Dolomite one off, unique mix to make Dream with the agreement that the mix should be destroyed after casting.

Meanwhile, work continued at Sutton Manor and at 2pm on Tuesday April 21st the final section of Dream was winched into place, to much media publicity. The official opening took place on May 31st 2009 and was a very special day for all concerned. It involved a traditional Whit Walk with brass bands and choir and was attended by more than two thousand people. The special guest of honour was the Dream creator, Jaume Plensa. Former miner Gary Conley compered the event.

Local schoolchildren had been involved in their own Dream-related heritage project. A short book 'Sutton Manor Its Colliery and Community' plus two DVDs were created in 2007 and a spin-off from their efforts was the creation of a Shining Lights Heritage Group led by Marian White. All had contributed much to make the day happen.

Since then Dream has proved the cynics and critics wrong. It's created enormous interest and given much pleasure to many people. In 2019 the sculpture is attracting over 85000 visitors per year from all over the world. Jaume himself has created Dreams cousins throughout the world which are revered as great pieces of public art. It should never be forgotten that of all the 1500 applicants in the big art project, cities such as London, Glasgow, Belfast and Sheffield failed in their attempts to install a piece of public art, whereas diminutive St Helens fully succeeded against all the odds, producing a piece of artwork by a world famous artist and incredibly costing the town and its residents nothing.

A magnificent achievement.

10th anniversary 6

Local press coverage around the time of Dream's 10th anniversary in June 2019: Liverpool Echo | St Helens Star