2011 Honourees: Michael and Jean Oglesby

In the 35 years since Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre was established, it has never yet produced a play that Michael and Jean Oglesby did not come to see. If everybody had an appetite like that, the arts would have no need for philanthropists.

In the world we actually live in, however, people with the energy and generosity of Mike and Jean are needed very badly. Through sponsorship from Mike’s property business Bruntwood, or through the Oglesby Charitable Trust, they have been energetic supporters of, among others, the Hallé Orchestra, the Cheetham’s School of Music, the Manchester International Festival, the Royal Northern College of Music, the Manchester Library Theatre Company, the Lowry Centre, and of course the Royal Exchange.

It would be rather easier, in fact, to list the arts organisations in Manchester that do not have a reason to be grateful to the Oglesbys. “Mike is just very passionate about making sure that Manchester is on the map,” says Fiona Gasper, executive director of the Royal Exchange.

Given the breadth of their commitment, it would be understandable if Mike and Jean chose not to involve themselves too deeply. Yet the opposite has been the case. At the Royal Northern College of Music, where they fund three full scholarships per year, their interest in the winners – whom they make a point of meeting and talking to, and whose concerts they attend – has been noticeable to everyone.

When Cheetham’s approached Mike, asking him to advise them on their buildings, they were amazed by his response. “Rather than just give advice,” explains the head Claire Hickman, “Michael took the lead himself, managing the development project that is currently underway.” Far from merely funding the Royal Exchange’s education programme that works with young people with autistic spectrum disorder, Jean has insisted that she should come to visit the group, meet the students and watch the final show. Those are three examples picked from many.

And despite the localisation its focus, the effects of Mike and Jean’s generosity have been felt far and wide. The Bruntwood Prize for new plays, established in 2006 and open to writers from anywhere in the country, has been a huge success. More than 30,000 people watched the winning plays in this year alone. While the Manchester International Festival, now a fixture on the British cultural calendar, might simply never have come into existence were it not for Mike’s energetic support during the early stages of its development.

“I’ve known them both for a long time now,” says Sir Mark Elder, music director at the Hallé. “And it’s not just money, that’s what’s so important to emphasise. They both give time. How they find it, I’ve no idea. But they both give time as well as funds to support what they believe in. What they have done for the cultural life of Manchester is outstanding."