Harris fundraiser Hilary goes freelance

"What a place to work. What an amazing building." Hilary Machell has been a key member of the Harris Museum and Art Gallery team in Preston for 23 years. But now she's ready for a change.

By Fiona Finch
Thursday, 13th May 2021, 12:30 pm

Just over three decades ago Hilary Machell came to Lancashire to go to university.

She had been brought up in Biggin Hill on the Kent/London border, but was smitten by the red rose county where she studied for a degree in Theatre Studies and English Literature at Lancaster University.

Today the county is still her home. She said: “My parents were both Londoners and my mother was from Sunderland, so I’ve a foot in the north! I came to Lancaster University in 1990 and I never left.”

Hilary Machell pictured outside the Harris Museum, Art Gallery and Library in Preston Photo: Neil Cross

During those years her professional life has seen her make a significant impact on the cultural life of Preston. Not least by helping ensure Preston’s Harris Museum and Art Gallery can face the future financially with funding for its £10m #HarrisMyPlace transformation project.

But now Hilary, 50, is taking a new path. She has opted for voluntary redundancy from her role as the Harris’ Capital Fundraising Manager and Wednesday, May 12 was her last day in post at the city’s renowned museum and art gallery.

She said: “I’ll miss the Harris and I’ll miss my colleagues and I’ll miss being involved in the delivery of the £10m #HarrisYourPlace which I’ve worked on for a long time.”

It will be a wrench, but she promises she will be back: “I shall be coming to exhibition openings and enjoying them as a visitor rather than as somebody who has to make it all happen.”

The Harris is a spectacular building to work in, as shown in this photo by Neil Cross of Hilary in the Harris rotunda

She continued: “I feel I’m ready to work with other organisations and develop my freelance career and hopefully do some writing. Obviously I’ve got mixed feelings. I’m ready for a change, much as I love the Harris and Preston. I don’t want to spend my entire career here - 23 years is a good innings.”

Of the writing she said:"I did train as an English teacher. I’m not sure I’ve got a novel in me but I think I’ve lots of blogs and articles ... it will be nice to do something that just comes from me.”

Hilary said she also felt the time was right for a move because the change will fit with her family commitments. She said: “I’ve a son now well into his teenage years (which) gives me more flexibility to pursue some different things.”

She previously worked at Askews Library Services in Preston She began work at the Harris after seeing the job for a marketing and fundraising expert advertised for the second time:”I thought what a place to work, what an amazing building. I didn’t initially apply for it. I didn’t have the confidence. When I saw it advertised three months later they hadn’t found the right person - the rest is history.”

Hilary in the ceramics and glass gallery Photo: Neil Cross

She acknowledges ”I will miss it terribly and I will also miss my phenomenally talented and endlessly hard-working colleagues, who teach me something new every day.”

Hilary also paid tribute to her previous boss Alex Walker (former head of Arts and Heritage at Preston Council) and said: “Really where we are now at the Harris is a credit to her hard work and ambition. She was always looking forward to the next step, the next to improve the Harris.”

As a member of the senior management team Hilary has been involved in many projects at the Harris and has lead on marketing and fundraising.

She said: “I have been lucky to have learned a huge amount in my years at the Harris and to have been involved in some wonderful projects, not least the development of the Ceramics and Glass and Discover Preston galleries.”

Hilary admires the Harris collection of glass which includes many perfume bottles Photo: Neil Cross

Other memorable achievements include gaining Renaissance and Arts Council NPO (National Portfolio) £225,000 annual funding which has helped finance exhibitions and creative events at the Harris. She is also proud to have had a role in ensuring the Harris has showcased many award-winning contemporary art commissions and exhibitions, as well as developing what she describes as “life-changing community work for local people”.

Hilary said: “It has also been a joy to work with the Friends of the Harris, trustees and members, hundreds of other local people and organisations, and to develop and lead fundraising campaigns for major acquisitions for the collection, like Portrait of Richard Arkwright, and many more modest projects.”

She developed the online presence of the Friends of the Harris charity and delighted in getting to to know the many supporters and visitors who love the Harris.

Stressing the investment for the #HarrisYourPlace capital project is urgently needed. she said: “We spend an awful lot of time hiding the parts of the Harris that are in a really poor condition so people don’t see them. We’ve got a 128 year old building and the roof is failing and the stonework is failing, the basement is failing. If we don’t do this work to conserve the building there won’t be a Harris...We’re not damaging the building we’re essentially making a much better building.”

Observing too that the visitors needs and expectations in 1890 were different from those of a 21st century visitor she notes the Harris has always been at the forefront of the art world, forever embracing change. She said: “We‘ve been showing contemporary art since 1893. We’re showing now works that are cutting edge in contemporary art and we were showing it (contemporary art) in 1890.”

She warms to her theme about the city’s pioneering role, citing 18th century Prestonian and spinning frame inventor Sir Richard Arkwright and his part in the industrial revolution and subsequent globalisation and declares: “Preston really has changed the world.”

Hilary pictured in 2012 in front of the portrait of Sir Richard Arkwright

Of the portrait of Arkwright by Joseph Wright of Derby she lists it as one of her favourite items in the Harris. It was purchased by the Harris and National Portrait Gallery in part with support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund. She said: “We have a collection of 18th century portraiture at the Harris. It could have gone to a private bidder. We raised it all through grants. It didn’t cost Preston’s Harris a penny.”

Another favourite painting is the Man in The Moon Inn by Anthony Devis. She said: “It’s in our fine art gallery. It’s a purely fictional piece, two gentlemen have clearly had too much to drink. There’s something about it always makes me laugh and his family were Preston painters.”

Her previous roles included being Interim Harris Manager 2015 -18 and Business Development and Fundraising Manager from 2008 - 2015.

Looking back she reflects there have been numerous stand out and memorable moments in her career including the Quentin Blake exhibition, TV coverage of the Harris by broadcaster Tony Wilson, the support of antiques expert Eric Knowles, especially for the YourPlace fundraising and similar support from Preston’s own Turner prizewinning UCLan Professor Lubaina Himid, who has also exhibited her work at the Harris.

Hilary is enthusiastic too about the many talented artists working or whose work has appeared in the city. including Rebecca Chesney, Magda Dhaka Becan. Matt Birchall, Gary Cook and Gavin Renshaw.

She said: “I’m interested in working with other arts organisations I think there’s quite a lot of scope and certainly at the moment fundraising seems to be in demand.

"I’ve really spent 10 years working on #HarrisYourPlace. I’ve raised the money so we can go ahead with that. I’ve been able to do lots of things like develop our Friends organisations but it’s nice to hand it on to someone else for the delivery of #HarrisYourPlace. It’ll be four to five years before it comes to fruition and it would mean me actually being here 30 years. Now it’s time for me to move on.”

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