SHE took Warrington to the Moon and back when she completely reinvented the town’s arts festival to make it more inclusive.

Now Leah Biddle is looking ahead to 2020 to keep the momentum going after the event’s ‘massive shift change’ saw 11,617 people visit the Parr Hall to see the Museum of the Moon. Luke Jerram’s awe-inspiring lunar sculpture has travelled the world and was the key feature of this year’s Warrington Contemporary Arts Festival.

It also inspired a range of events under the Moon from yoga to a visit from Manchester Art Battle over 10 days. Altogether, 27,130 people – including many more families than previous years – attended festival events and exhibitions and 251 artists were involved.

Another hugely successful feature was Light Night, a series of interactive light and sound installations in Queens Gardens, which is helping to shape the family-friendly plans for 2020.

Leah, who led the festival for Culture Warrington, said: “The whole festival exceeded my expectations. I knew what we’d programmed was really high quality so I was hoping for a good audience but I was completely blown away.

“The response from people was incredibly positive and incredibly supportive. There was definitely a massive shift change from previous years so all our hard work paid off.

“I remember on Light Night I just sat for a little while and I wasn’t necessarily watching the performance – I was watching the people. There were so many families there enjoying a night of art and culture. What surprised me the most is that people were staying for a couple of hours and making an evening of it which was really nice. We kind of expected people to turn up, have a little look and leave but they were taking their time, enjoying it and going to see all the different things.

“The Moon and all the events around that were incredibly successful. I think on the last Sunday we had almost 1,000 people in the morning with queues down the street.

“People were saying they were pleased but also a bit surprised that something like this had come to Warrington.

Knutsford Guardian:

Pictures by Ioan Said

“We had new people coming into the Cultural Quarter. People had come from Liverpool and Chester particularly for Light Night and others were saying they were seeing the Parr Hall for the first time.”

It has had a knock-on effect too, particularly around awareness of Warrington Museum and Art Gallery events.

The museum and gallery welcomed almost 300 visitors when it opened late for the festival launch night and festival exhibitions by artist Marie Jones have proved so popular that they have remained on display.

Leah, a former Bridgewater High School student, added: “The footfall in the museum and art gallery has increased.

“We’ve extended both of Marie’s shows into the new year as people were coming to Warrington specifically for that.

“Then the Eric Tucker exhibition at the moment is attracting a different audience. There’s a real buzz there at the moment.”

You might say Leah is putting Warrington on the arts and culture map and that is quite literal when it comes to her next big project – the Abandon Normal Devices Festival.

Leah said: “They basically take over an area and utilise the landscape to create new work.

“Their focus for next year is in Merseyside and Cheshire. They’ve created two routes – one from Liverpool to Wirral and one from Ellesmere Port to Warrington – so we’ve been selected as one of their key sites which is really exciting.

“We’re going to be working with an artist from New York so it’s just amazing. That’ll be taking place in May so it’s a nice follow on from this year’s arts festival.”

Then there is the small matter of planning the next festival. The month-long festival will run from mid-September to mid-October and will again feature a large scale ‘headline’ installation in the Parr Hall and the return of Light Night.

The celebrations will tie in with the Parr Hall’s 125th birthday on September 26 and there will also be two newly commissioned pieces at the museum and art gallery.

Culture Warrington’s flagship event will also now be simply known as Warrington Arts Festival.

Leah, who is applying for Arts Council funding, added: “Some people didn’t know what contemporary art was or, even if they did, they were questioning whether it was for them or not.

“We’ve just removed that name to remove that barrier.”

Leah is also responding to feedback with her plans to extend Light Night next year.

She added: “I wish Light Night had been for two nights – and we will have it for two nights next year – as we had a lot of people who discovered it on social media and by the time they were planning to go it was too late.

“Also from a logistics point of view, it was a two or three-day install for one night of activities so it makes sense to have it for two nights. So that was my biggest regret but I was really happy with how everything else went.

“I think it was really important for there to be be something for everybody at the festival.

“We created a lot of this year’s programme around children so that they would be inspired and have those wow moments.”