"It is not very usual to have an art collection like this in somewhere like Moss Side," admits Whitworth Art Gallery director Maria Balshaw.
With a collection spanning Picasso, Freud, Emin, Blake, Hockney and Hamilton, displayed in the heart of what Balshaw called "one of the most multicultural but economically deprived wards in the country" improving the surrounding community's access to art is at the core of the Whitworth Art Gallery's £15m refurbishment.
Balshaw was speaking at a preview event ahead of the reopening of the Manchester gallery this weekend. Following 18-months of construction activity, the works have doubled the public space and allowed for 4,000 sq ft of additional exhibition areas. Alongside an extensive refurbishment of the 19th-Century building, the scheme has delivered two extensions stretching from the back of the gallery into Whitworth Park to house a 120-cover café and restaurant, landscape gallery and learning centre.
New windows punched through the original building's walls and a glass promenade connecting the two wings have created several eye-lines across the length of the gallery and into the park beyond. Similarly, from outside the view into the galleries and its collections is clear. This merging of the inside/outside and the Whitworth's prominent position in Moss Side is what Balshaw believes attracted a significant level of grant funding to the project in 2009. At a time when cuts to the arts and plans for the 2012 Olympics were putting an overwhelming strain on the public purse, the Whitworth Art Gallery managed to secure an £8.5m Heritage Lottery Grant which allowed the plans to move forwards. This was then supplemented by £3m from the University of Manchester, and £1.5m from the Arts Council.
"It was very difficult, but not impossible, to get grants then," Balshaw told Place North West. "The collection and its heritage was of unquestionable importance, and this combined with our ethos of sharing the gallery with people in the surrounding area who may not normally have access to art, was what clinched the HLF deal for us."
Between the new wings and glass promenade, landscape architect Sarah Price is installing an art garden, including a sculpture terrace and orchard, which is intended to blur the boundary between the park and the gallery. With no fences separating the two, and a park-side entrance built into the glass extension, the idea is to reduce "threshold anxiety" for the people who may currently regularly use the park but feel like a gallery is not the place for them. In 2013 the Whitworth had 190,000 visitors; for 2015 it is targeting a 20% increase in school pupils accessing the learning centre and is conducting informal learning programmes to reach an additional 45,000 people.
On a tour around the gallery, it is the quality of McInnes Usher McKnight Architects' extension and the attention to detail across the refurbishment that stands out the most, particularly considering the firm was working to a limited, and potentially limiting, budget. Although the materials used are simple, mainly brick, glass and stone, the textures and finishes gives the fit-out an expensive feel.
MUMA's design intentionally complements and references the Whitworth's collection. According to Stuart McInnes, lead architect on the project, the pattern of the brickwork outside imitates the weave found historically in some silks and cottons, and pays homage to the Whitworth's extension textiles and fashion collection. A large array of landscape watercolours and several paintings by J.M.W. Turner have traditionally been firm favourites with visitors, and the gallery's extension dominated by windows puts the real landscape outside in full view alongside the paintings.
Leading a group of dominated by London art critics and press around the gallery, Balshaw was rightly proud of what her team had achieved. Standing in the glass promenade and looking out on what come springtime will be Price's art garden, Balshaw pointed out the sculpture which has been installed above the door to greet visitors; Nathan Coley's light installation spelling out the words "gathering of strangers". For Balshaw, this sign summed up what was at the core of the Whitworth's purpose, as she said: "In a political climate in which tension between different communities is increasing, a gathering of strangers in a free, publicly-funded gallery is more important now than ever before."
- ISG and Manchester & Cheshire Construction were the contractors on the scheme. AA Projects was the health and safety adviser.
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Photography by Alan Williams