Having been temporarily shut for 16 months, owing to a £15m overhaul project, Manchester’s much-loved Whitworth Art Gallery reopened to the public on Valentine’s Day with a nuanced “Fall in love again” message.
The run-up to the Oxford Road gallery’s reopening gathered interest, not only in the city but around the North West of the country, as the loudly advertised “explosive return” pulled in visitors from across the country. The collaboration between commissioned artist Cornelia Parker and co-creator of graphene, Kostya Novoselov, brought about a meteor shower in tribute to artist and poet William Blake, whose prints are in the gallery’s permanent collection.
As doors opened at 10am, a sizeable queue had stretched towards the main gate of the gallery; much to the dismay of some visitors as an anti-austerity rally was reverberating its chants via a megaphone across the street. Thousands still waited, as many were keen to see the 10 new exhibitions and curator talks – a list embellished with eminent speakers like Manchester-born writer Jeanette Winterson.
After eventually being ushered in – ‘Fall in love again’ pamphlet in hand – visitors walked into a space that was understandably heaving, as crowds of people moved together, broke away then rejoined again like sea-waves.
The gallery’s new design by architects Muma (McInnes Usher McKnight) uses grand glass and steel wings in the flamboyant spirit of the Victorian original, to bring more light inside and to create a flow between nature and art. “Victorians weren’t afraid of showing off”, Winterson later said in her speech about the gallery’s exhilarating and glitzy architectural transformation.
Perhaps the most poignant element of Winterson’s speech in the Grand Hall of the building was that, “This is the first gallery in England that was put in a park, and that brings us to the interesting idea that the Victorians didn’t even question – the healing and therapeutic effect of art and nature together”. It contrasted sharply against the ever-growing threat from corporate Britain to industrialise and commercialise cities as opposed to creating spaces that make people feel ‘human’ again. Winterson said the gallery is a place where the soul is both “renewed and revived”.
“Despite the huge crowds, I managed to get a view of most of the art. It was not the art that actually inspired me today. It was the opening speech [Winterson]. The correlation of art and nature combined, and the connection that both art and nature have with our souls. I am a huge fan of art therapy (my own line drawings); so that was quite touching to hear. I would definitely recommend going at a quieter period” artist Asma Jadakara from Bolton told TNT, having visited the gallery on its opening day
Maria Balshaw, director of the Whitworth said, “People round here don’t have fancy houses. Often they have no outside space that isn’t public space. The Victorians understood that and so should we”.
What became apparent, however, in many of the responses from people leaving the gallery on the opening day were the “disappointed”, “disillusioned” and “uninspired” reactions to the art exhibited. One visitor told TNT that, “Some of Parker’s art is uninspired and although fits well with contemporary art it is far from ‘real’. Some of the other art had just vacation photos in Greece. The way the exhibits are arranged doesn’t do any favours to the visitor either. It’s a shame because the new space itself is fantastic”.
In any case, the Whitworth is back with a fresh new look, more entrances for art pieces into the building, a ‘cafe in the trees’ and most of all it is still free entry. The opening day may not have brought about rave reviews but the makeover is a timely in a climate riddled with increased irritations and frantic jostle of daily living. The gallery offers a space to be human again; a place that aids you to shut out all that tirelessly works to prevent you from feeling.
Earlier on in her speech, Winterson joked, “If you look around you’ll find that there are a lot of like-minded people [here today]; this is better than match.com. We are a social species. [This] is public money well-spent”, as she alluded to three points; the gallery’s opening coinciding with Valentine’s Day, the ‘Fall in love again’ theme, and the unique encouragement of intimate dialogue in such spaces.
TNT News Yasin Chinembiri