Arts & Culture Business & Start-ups People

Getting to know Domino Panton-Oakley: Founder of Cotton On MCR

Cotton on. phrasal verb. If you cotton on to something, you understand it or realize it, especially without people telling you about it. [British, informal]’

Passionate about Manchester and its visual culture, Domino Panton-Oakley, Founder of Cotton On MCR, a one-stop-shop guide to the city’s ever-changing art and creative scene, is on a quest to create a space that brings together the best of Manchester’s arts offering.

From exhibition listings, art reviews and interviews with emerging artists and makers, Cotton On is much more than a listings platform. A launching pad for the city’s creative talent, Domino’s passion and enthusiasm for accessible and impactful art is inspiring, necessary and timely.

We recently sat down with Domino to learn more about the evolution of Cotton On, delved deeper into the accessibility and diversity debate and of course, picked her brains, to find out what we should all be cottoning on to in Manchester this year.

Can you tell us the story behind Cotton On MCR?

It’s an on-going debate who came up with the name, my husband thinks it was him – it wasn’t! When thinking about creating this organisation, we wanted something that said ‘Manchester’ and link to it’s history. We wanted the people of Manchester to see what was happening here. We wanted people to realise how much talent we have in Manchester’s art scene, how many galleries we have and see the amazing things those galleries are doing. We wanted people to realise art can be for everyone, it isn’t as pompous and elitist as some people think. We wanted to shout out about how awesome this city is – we wanted people to Cotton On!

The idea of “cottoning on” to something sits at the heart of your concept, at what point did you realise that the people of Manchester were not seeing or accessing the best of the city’s art scene?

It was when I was going on to every galleries website to see what exhibitions they had on and what their opening times were. I would have about 5 tabs open comparing one gallery to another, thinking which exhibitions can I go to, which ones look best, signing up to their newsletters… There are other websites out there that list Manchester exhibitions, but they tend to focus on the big boys, Manchester Art Gallery and the The Whitworth for example. But Manchester has so many smaller, independent galleries which house some great work and fantastic artists, and it was these that were being missed! So I saw a gap in the market, which Cotton On MCR now fills (I hope!).

Having studied Fine Art and clearly having a passion for it, what ways do you think we can make it more accessible?

I think we need more affordable art classes and workshops. Running Cotton On MCR means I get invited to attend these classes which is fantastic! But sometimes they can cost £25 – £35+, and that may not be affordable to a lot of people. Yet most of the people that attend these workshops are new to art/painting and haven’t done anything like it before. So there is massive potential for more workshops, it’d just be great if there was a way to make them more affordable. Also, galleries and artists should try and be more open to people, stop with all the fancy artists statements, the ‘deeper meanings’ and elitist talk. Be more open and real, and you will appeal to more people!

One of the articles you posted on your site talks about female representation in the industry and drew attention to the fact that only 10% of galleries have 50% or more female artists, what do you think is the best way to tackle this imbalance of representation?

This is a real tricky one. That article had a lot of responses and interaction from readers which was great and continued the conversation. I think the imbalance needs to be looked at earlier, in schools for example. What I found fascinating was that the majority of people doing art courses/degrees are women, but then they aren’t being represented after that. So what is happening after the course finishes? I think we need to encourage women to continue with their work and passions, to continually push and try new things. I think we need to shout louder and ask for more. I always say, ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’. The worst that can happen is someone says no, and you are in the same position as when you started. Just keep going until they, or someone else, says yes!

Leading on from this, have you ever felt your gender has held you back or limited your access to opportunities?

Not quite, but subconsciously I think being female has changed the way I worked. On setting up Cotton On MCR I was keen not to put my face to the organisation. I was very much hidden in the background. Perhaps I did that so I wasn’t judged as a woman? It has only been recently, as Cotton On MCR grows, that I feel confident in saying ‘Hey, this is me and this is what I have created!’  

The variety and sheer volume of listings on the blog is impressive, how do you manage to cover all this ground?

Caffeine and bananas! It does take an awfully long time to go through the galleries in Manchester and add them to the What’s On Calendar. Since launching Cotton On MCR back in November 2017, all I have asked from the galleries is to include me in their press lists, or remember to tell me, or tag me, in their new events and exhibitions. But for whatever reason, I am still fighting that battle. I am still having to go on each galleries website to find all the exhibitions. You’d think this would be high on their list, I am pretty much offering them free advertising! Some of them are very good at keeping me informed, so thank you guys! Not all of galleries are bad.

I also have a pool of volunteer writers and photographers which helps massively in giving me time to focus on other parts of the organisation and the growth of the business as a whole. I owe them all a massive thank you!  

One of the features on the blog, Manc of the Month sounds great, can you tell us a bit about what criteria you’re looking for when bestowing this honour?

Out ethos has always been to promote the art and artists of Manchester so we really love doing this feature. It’s a mix really in terms of what we look for. We have featured a number of artists who’s work we are fans of. This ranges from photographers to collage artists, painters to sculptors. We try and mix it up so it’s something different each month. We recently featured a curator whose exhibitions we have been following from since we launched. We do want to feature more people ‘behind the scenes’ of the art world – gallery owners, event planners etc. We love helping promote people’s projects, whether that be a new event or exhibition.

You have recently added the Cotton On MCR Shop can you tell us a bit about what we can find there?

Here we sell the work of Manchester based creatives. We stock everything from prints, photography and original pieces. We are in the process of adding more craft including ceramics and jewellery. We wanted to introduce another platform that we can promote and help the artists across the city. It is free for them to sell with us, which is obviously a massive bonus for new and up-coming artists. When it comes to adding items to the shop, we look for contemporary, affordable pieces. It is tricky when deciding who to feature, but we try and stick to what we like and what we think will sell. So far that has worked for us and the shop continues to grow, and we are getting more and more sales each month!

Heading into summer, what events and exhibitions across the city are you particularly looking forward to?

Manchester International Festival this summer should be good. It’s the first one since the launch of Cotton On MCR so we are pretty excited to attend the events. Then there is the launch of Factory next year which we are pretty excited about too.

There is also our first ever event, the Cotton On MCR Pop-Up Art Fair, which will be held at Leaf on Portland Street, Saturday 7th September! This is the first time we have put an event together and we are so excited. The fair will be selling original art, prints, craft, jewellery and more! We can’t wait to be working with the artists directly and selling to the public. We’ll be there to introduce ourselves too, so make sure you pop in and say hello – free entry!

Can you tell us your favourite thing about Manchester’s art scene/and your favourite thing about Manchester?

I think Manchester’s Art scene is thriving. I think we have some amazing artists coming from the Uni, they are so talented and I can’t wait to see them develop. We have some great galleries that host some really outstanding exhibitions too. I just wish we had some bigger names here. I know they won’t build a Tate in Manchester, so close to Liverpool, but we need something like that to draw in the huge artists names. Maybe Factory will do this?

My favourite thing about Manchester, outside of art, is the sheer volume of things to do. You can never be bored in Manchester! If you aren’t visiting one of our many shopping centres or high streets, you can chill with a nice craft beer at one of our many breweries or beer gardens. You can see football, watch a play, play crazy golf, visit museums, eat at food markets, dance, bottomless brunch, summer festivals…. Honestly, it’s a fantastic place to live! Maybe I’m in the wrong business, I should work for the tourist board!

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