Maria Balshaw

Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery is currently undergoing a multi-million pound renovation which will extend the institution out of its hundred year-old shell and further out into the park it occupies. This architectural renewal has come accompanied with a refreshed formulation of the Whitworth’s role within the context of Manchester, and particularly within the context of the urban districts it adjoins: like the Whitechapel Gallery in London’s East End, the Whitworth was originally intended as a haven for the working-class communities in Moss Side, Rusholme and Hulme. Luke Healey spoke to Gallery director Maria Balshaw about renegotiating the Whitworth’s original Victorian ethos in the twenty-first century.

Luke Healy: During the speech you gave at a recent press event concerning the Whitworth renovation project I was struck by your use of the phrase “perpetual gratification”, which is taken from the founding mission statement of the gallery. Could you say more about this?

Maria Balshaw: It’s in the founding papers of the gallery – in those days, the 1880s, they wouldn’t have called it a mission statement but that’s what it was. So, in the gallery’s founding papers it says that the Whitworth Institute, as it was called then, was set up for the “perpetual gratification” of the people of Manchester, as well as to provide instruction in the disciplines of fine art, textiles and sculpture. And so there was this sense in the very early stages of the Whitworth’s life that it should be both a learning institution, a place where people could come and find out something to improve themselves – a very Victorian idea – but also that it should be a place of social and emotional gratification, which is very much part of the way that we think about the gallery today. That it should be a place that gives people joy, and that part of the learning you undertake in the gallery is learning about beauty and sociability. What sits alongside the mission statement is the committee papers, where the group of philanthropists that helped support the gallery from the earliest stages talk about what happens once it opens, and of course it opens originally with the gallery and park as one entity. And so, in the way of Victorian committee reports, they talk about the grounds and the park being used by people of “all social classes”, and that that was part of the purpose: to create a gallery with pleasure gardens around it was part of an aspiration to broaden access to the cultural capital that was being created within the Whitworth.

LH: It’s interesting that you flag up some of these ideas as being “very Victorian”, as there does seem to be a historical separation between the ethos embedded in the Whitworth’s founding papers and what seems possible now. There’s a longstanding fractious relationship between art and gratification which goes back all the way to, say, Medieval devotional painting, but the desire to disassociate the two becomes a particularly prominent cultural logic in the Modernist period, as diagnosed by Laura Frost in her book The Problem with Pleasure. Speaking from the other side of Modernism, where do you see gratification’s obverse – challenge, deferral, obtuseness – in the way you envisage the Whitworth’s public role role after the renovation?

MB: I suppose I think that as much as my own personal tastes in art tend towards the Modernist, we are beyond that paradigm. We operate in a world which offers, potentially at least, many different versions of what gratification could mean. I think that a Modernist obsession with difficulty and challenge is another way of maintaining certain types of hierarchies and social stratifications and divisions. As much as a lot of Modernism’s political imperative came from the left, and was trying to challenge and overturn the status quo, when that turns into wilfully difficult it becomes just another way of saying here is stuff that you won’t understand, and you’ll either need to have it explained to you, or accept that it is not for you.

The Whitworth isn’t a contemporary art institution, and it isn’t a narrow art museum. It sits within a rather more interesting (to me) constellation of the museums that make up the UK, some of which have dinosaurs and mummies, and others of which have paintings and textiles. And I think that is quite important because, while we show contemporary art – and in fact we typically show very challenging contemporary art – we do so in a context where we are a multi-disciplinary museum. And so we have quilts and dresses as well as live art and high Modernist fine art pieces. And that’s really exciting. Because what seems to me to be happening as we move into the twenty-first century is the possibility that you can imagine a more diverse audience who appreciate that kind of spectrum of opportunities, and so are quite capable of dealing with very challenging work alongside something domestic, wallpaper alongside live art performances.

Especially in the northern cities, the Victorians behind institutions like the Whitworth understood that if those cities were to thrive, they were going to need to get beyond the situation where the lumpenproletariat were kept down working in the factories over here and a small number of rich people were succeeding over there. There was no particular socialist or progressive interest, but they were interested in civility, and that to me is what is fascinating in our current time. I think gratification and those kinds of ideas are being reformulated – terms like “wellbeing” are used. So rather than thinking about the situation that Laura Frost documents you might start with someone like Richard Sennett, and ask what is required now for a city to thrive. Whether you’re looking at ethnic or racial tension or the still too-large divide between rich and poor, the problem of our time is how people can live in urban centres and thrive. And that’s a problem at a really practical level for a local authority in times of reduced funding, where their challenge is to make economic growth happen in the city and reduce dependency on council services. Actually, strong cultural institutions, a strong sense of civic pride and a connection to the arts help with both of those things, partly because they help change perceptions of Manchester as a city around the world. But also just in a very day-to-day ordinary way, if people take more from the Victorian culture that was left for them, all the research shows that they end up better able to learn things at school, better able to access council services that support them if they’re newly arrived families, better able to make themselves well again. Better able to cope with their job if they’re a busy middle-class person and they just need to look at something lovely on a Sunday.

LH: You’ve already pointed towards an answer to my next question, which was going to be about the part of that passage in the founding papers that mentions “cultivation in the arts”. Speaking as an art historian with an interest in twentieth and twenty-first century critical and theoretical developments, this idea seems slightly out-of-date now, associable with conservative figures like Kenneth Clarke. How do you negotiate the patrician terms of this original mission statement?

MB: There’s an artwork that will sit above the new entrance to the gallery by the Scottish artist Nathan Coley, a big neon called Gathering of Strangers. In early twentieth-century imaginings of the city there’s some pleasure in the anonymity of the flaneur but there’s also a lot of danger. I think what we’re trying to imagine and offer to people is that the gathering of strangers might be a really positive paradigm for our time. One of the great things about free-at-the-point-of-access galleries is that you don’t have to have anyone with you to be able to come in, and no-one will look strangely at a single person walking around a gallery – that’s sort of what’s supposed to happen. But you do that in the company of others, in the company of other strangers. And so you’re both on your own and part of a community who are cultivating their knowledge of fine art…

LH: …but they might be doing it in unpredictable ways because of how their experience is embedded in that community…

MB: Yeah. And you can take what you need – we don’t dictate. The renegotiation from our twenty-first century position is that we don’t presume to tell people what they have to know about the collection. We offer them ways in, we share our knowledge, but the paradigms that we’re working with are more conversational than teacher-pupil.

One of the questions that’s often asked of me is “how do you negotiate three year-olds accessing the collection alongside scholars from Yale?”, as if those things are contradictory. I think for some institutions those things are contradictory – they try to keep those sorts of audiences apart. But I don’t think that’s the right approach at all. What we think at the Whitworth is that a three year-old and a forty-three year-old with a PhD in 18th-century watercolours are both researchers at their own level, and our job is to assist with that research journey. A child might be looking for colour, or texture, or a moment of excitement, but they’re trying to find things out, and not being patronising about their research endeavour alongside that of the Yale scholar is really important.

LH: Undergirding the original sense of the Whitworth’s role is an image of the surrounding area of Manchester as a place of “malaise”. In what ways do you feel the city has developed since then, and in what ways has or should a site like the Whitworth adapt to reflect the social shifts of its urban context?

MB: Any time you look back to the Victorians you will get a strong sense of the social medicines needed to cure society. We don’t take that kind of approach, but my feeling is that the park was created around the gallery because there was a very strong sense – that we do share now – that we need green spaces. To use the later words of Margaret Pilkington, we agree that visitors need to be able to enjoy the outdoor space as a counterpoint to what’s within. That’s why so many parks were created, especially in the industrial cities, and the Whitworth Park was a particularly important bit of green lung. Part of the malaise they were talking about wasn’t social unrest so much as smog, dirt, sewers, and the actual, practical malaise that green space helps to mitigate. I think we sort of forgot that, particularly from the 1980s onwards, but there’s a renewed attention to the importance of parks in cities, and of people feeling a connection to the outdoors, which is part of that wellbeing-mindfulness-Countryfile on the television-gardening sensibility.

When you look around the area around the Whitworth though, the malaise is still there. Part of the reason the Heritage Lottery Fund were prepared to invest in the Whitworth is because we sit within some of the most deprived communities in the north. That’s still the case, and it’s still shocking that we have one of the most powerful universities in the UK, and that you can have a grammar school only a mile away from the gallery where every child goes to university, but in our local area virtually no children go to university. That’s just wrong, it’s unequal, and it’s unhelpful for the economic prosperity of Manchester. So we need to be part of the things that the city does to help address that. Access to green space but also access to cultural capital really does help to start to shift those kinds of statistics. Programs of wellbeing are really important in an area that has some of the worst mental health issues in the north, and shorter-than-average life expectancy. But I think the biggest shift is that despite the challenges facing the communities living around the Whitworth now, we see them as a resource and not a problem. What they bring is an incredibly diversity of cultural backgrounds, and different kinds of preferences as to how they want to access culture and the arts, and different kinds of sociability. And so we have an opportunity there as well as a support service to offer. That to me is incredibly exciting.

LH: So there’s an openness to feedback from those communities? I figure the Victorians weren’t too into allowing the local communities to really influence what went on within the museums.

MB: When we worked with the British Museum to show Khosrow Hassanzadeh‘s work, we were invited to work with them because they realised that Manchester has the largest Iranian community in the UK outside London. Under the Shah’s regime UMIST was one of science universities of choice for Iranians, and lots of them felt a strong affinity to the city, so when the Shah was deposed and the revolution happened large numbers of Iranians settled in Manchester. So we developed the exhibition – he’s a really interesting artist who could show his work here in a way that he wouldn’t have been able to in Iran – and what we had no idea about was that there is an Farsi-language community radio station in Manchester, and they got behind the project. There’s an Iranian wrestling group in Wythenshawe which has been established for decades – Iranian wrestling is quite a ceremonial thing, more like Sumo than English wrestling – and they’re all Mancunian born now, but they supported us. We held an Iranian New Year celebration in the gallery, on a Sunday afternoon, and we had 800 people come over three hours, because the community had organised it. An academic from the University – a British-born woman married to an Iranian – said the best thing I could have wished for partway through the afternoon. She looked around, and there was music and people sharing food, and wrestling going on in the South Gallery, and people talking about the art, and she said that this was really like an Iranian Sunday afternoon. It wasn’t us that had done that, it was the community helping to shape it. And that gave a context for a really important piece of contemporary art. It wasn’t a community project separate from our role in sharing and showing international art: working with our local community we were able to make much more sense of what that contemporary artwork means.

Whitworth Art Gallery reopens on 25 October 2014 with a major solo exhibition from Cornelia Parker alongside a diverse and exciting programme of historical and contemporary works.

Image: Cai Guo-Qiang, Unmanned Nature, 2008, Collection of the artist. Photograph: Seiji Toyonaga, courtesy Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art

Luke Healey is a writer and Phd candidate in Art History at The University of Manchester.

Published 25.04.2014 by Ali Gunn in Interviews

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