Whitworth Art Gallery:
letting the outside in

Text by Natalie Bradbury.

What is an art gallery for in the twenty first century – and, just as importantly, who is it for? These are some of the questions the Whitworth Art Gallery has been getting to grips with ahead of the unveiling of its multi-million pound redevelopment this autumn, which encompasses not just a refurbishment and opening up of the current building, but new indoor and outdoor spaces to extend the capacity of the gallery and what it can do.

Every cliché which comes to mind to describe the conventional museum and art gallery experience could be thrown at the current Whitworth building: Victorian, traditional, redbrick, solemn, imposing, old-fashioned, stern. Despite being the country’s first ‘gallery in a park’ when it opened back in 1889, the park of the same name in which it sits has long been an underused asset. At its best, though, the Whitworth’s past programming has made some use of the greenery outside with clever juxtapositions of art and architecture. During the 2010 exhibition Walls are Talking, Thomas Demand covered the walls of the light-flooded South Gallery – currently the only gallery to face out directly onto the park – from wall to ceiling in ivy-patterned wallpaper, providing an immersive and uplifting sensation. Cameroonian artist Pascale Marthine Tayou‘s 2012 installation in the same space, The World Falls Apart‘, meanwhile, invited visitors to imagine they were wandering through an unconventional forest, heightening both the audience’s experience of the art itself as well as drawing attention to the wider context in which it was situated.

For this reason it’s good to seen the new gallery extension, by British Architects MUMA,  taking this impenetrable-looking building out into the surrounding space of Whitworth Park with a glass-walled promenade gallery that will house a cafe and interactive studios for local schools and young people. This space does not impose visually on the natural environment but literally reflects what is around it through the use of polished stainless steel mullions, and will transform not just the museum-going experience but the outside viewer’s perception of the gallery and its use. The space’s transparency has a dual role. Visitors will be able to see out into the park – but, equally important, local residents, passers-by, commuters and users of the park will be able to see in and get a sense of what goes on inside. What the Whitworth hopes those looking in will see is that yes, galleries can be places of silent, reflective viewing and learning if you want them to be, but that they can also be places for meeting people, discussion, gaining skills and even fun.

Something the Whitworth has always been strong on is using its local strengths and connections, from working with its extensive wallpaper collection, to displaying artefacts from the textile trade alongside the artworks, to drawing on its status as a university gallery. The new gallery spaces will enable more of this heritage to go on show, both in terms of the collections themselves and in the reopening of areas previously closed off to the public, including long-hidden staircases and three grand, barrel-ceiling exhibition halls. In a nice bit of detailing, even MUMA’s modern redbrick extension takes its cue from historic textile patterns, incorporating designs inspired by traditional ‘slash work’.

For an institution born of the industrial age it’s good, too, to see science, art and industry being let in to the art world. Science and art will collaborate in the first exhibition (25 October-8 March 2015), where British artist Cornelia Parker will create an innovative installation which takes its cue from graphene, developed by scientists down the road at Manchester University. The Whitworth has already shown that it can do spectacular – the well-attended series of events which comprised the closing programme before the Whitworth shut for refurbishment are a good example of what can be achieved with a bit of imagination, and it sounds like Parker’s use of graphene as a trigger for a meteor shower will have a similar wow factor.

Equally exciting is the promise of a new outdoor sculpture garden. As well as comprising new commissions by the likes of Christine Borland, Nate Lowman, Simon Periton and Nico Vascellari, it will be a good chance to take a look again at what the Whitworth has already got. Two of the Whitworth’s most important recent acquisitions – and two of the city’s best, but sometimes overlooked, public artworks – are already situated outside the gallery. Gustav Metzger’s 2009 work ‘Flailing Trees’, which is a lasting legacy from the Manchester International Festival, already offers visitors an arresting introduction to the gallery, subverting the tranquil impression offered by the trees all around. More recently, Cyprien Gaillard used materials from the local area to great effect in ‘Whitwork Park Obelisk’ (2011), which has created a lasting monument to nearby Hulme and Moss Side by reusing ground-up brick from demolished houses and flats.

As well as inviting in the local community, the Whitworth is finally going to make the most of its enviable position in the midst one of south Manchester’s rare green lungs and spots of serenity: it looks like the gallery will be bringing the outside in, in more ways than one.

The Whitworth Art Gallery reopens on 14 February 2015.

Natalie Bradbury is a writer, researcher and PhD candidate based in Manchester.

Published 24.03.2014 by Ali Gunn

876 words