The Whitworth Gallery reopens

February 14th, 2015

The Whitworth Gallery in Manchester re-opens this weekend with the message “Fall In Love Again”.

It’s the right message. Creativity in all its forms is a passionate engagement with making something happen. Like falling in love, art is a disturbance of what is; a re-ordering of existing material; an encounter with otherness; and a baffled certainty that what is happening – long or short, brief or lasting – has to happen  (the urgency of love and making).

The happening of art renews/replaces/renames the tired old clichés of the obvious. Love changes us. Art changes us.

If you consider that every day we move through the world mostly trying to block it out – the irritations and assaults of frantic living; transport, traffic, workplace, meetings, morons. The mass intrusions of advertising, data, musak, babble; the competing madhouses of the daily jostle. In all that shutting out  how do we let life in? Life that feels authentic, worthwhile, engaging, personal?

When we fall in love we feel alive. Men and women have affairs in order to feel alive. Our senses are heightened. The birds suddenly start singing and the sun suddenly shines – even when it’s raining.  Things look different because for once we are looking at things. Mostly we look through things (and people) or past things. What did you see, really see, today?

Visual artists do the looking on our behalf in the same way as religious orders used to pray on our behalf. The looking of the artist’s eye creates an object that we in turn pay attention to, because we know you have to look at art. Paying attention in this way both relaxes and stimulates the brain. It hardly matters whether or not you ‘like’ the object in question. Concentration, engagement, the thinking/discussing that follow, lift us out of a mode of being that is purely instrumental. Art galleries are places to stand and stare. Places to be human – and that includes curious and voyeuristic.

For the Whitworth opening – and it is Valentine’s Day – Cornelia Parker has remade her version of Rodin’s The Kiss. The sculpture is called The Distance. A kiss with string attached.

What does it do?

Wrapping a copy of a Rodin in string is a multiple mind-bend. It asks us to reconsider the original – not let it take its place as a famous art object – a category of object that we also fail to see because it is absorbed at the level of familiarity. Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt but it does lead to blurred vision.

Visual art is a kind of cataract operation.

Stringing Rodin questions what is sexy and how looking at sexy askew makes us feel. It’s funny too. Kids laugh at it. They want to know why that man and lady are kissing covered in string.

Good question! Says those who like art in a frame and no messing about. But humans beings like to mess about. We are questioning questing creatures. Explore is what we do. Art, like, love, is an intimate exploration of the senses.

Cornelia Parker’s exploded shed is here too (Cold Dark Matter (an exploded view) – an anti-gravity judgement on the impossibility of matter.  Those bits of lawnmowers, garden tools, window frames, kids’ toys, floating like a shake-up snow-scene without the snow, make objects no longer objectified by use, purpose, fetish or familiarity, look as strange as they are. A collection of oddjects.

Oddjects is what the Victorians were good at. The Victorians loved a Collection and used the Empire to amass skins, skulls, marbles, mummies, bones, butterflies, textiles, trunk-loads of looted artefacts. Crates of costumes, rugs, tiger heads and manuscripts.

The Whitworth Museum has over 55,000 objects and oddjects in its collection. Many of these were in storage – now, with the vast extension and spirited renovation – the Whitworth can reveal itself as a Victorian philanthropic masterpiece and as a continuing cultural power source.

Manchester was Cottonopolis.  The textile collection at the Whitworth is equal to that of the V&A. The Whitworth is also the place to go for wallpapers – and it is a funny and clever that one room has been entirely papered with Sarah Lucas’s Tits In Space. Maybe George Osborne will get the family firm to do a run.

Art benefactor Pauline Karpides, now a Greek billionaire but once a Lancashire lass, has donated substantial art works from the 60’s and 70’s. She doesn’t believe that art is about class – but she does believe that class is about politics.  ‘She loves it that everybody comes here’ says Maria Balshaw. ‘This is everybody’s art.’

The Whitworth began in 1889 as a bequest of Sir Joseph Whitworth for ‘people of all social classes.’  A Manchester industrialist and inventor – the standard screw-thread, still known as BSW (British Standard Whitworth) and the Whitworth Sharpshooter rifle are his – Whitworth respected skill, whether you were a painter, a musician, a textile maker or a loom mechanic. Whitworth backed the first Mechanic’s Institutes because he believed in a practical education.

But he believed than man has a soul too – something our current crop of super-rich has conveniently forgotten. Manchester was a rough tough working city, the engine of England. It was known as the Golden Sewer, so filthy and foul were its living and working conditions, so unlimited its wealth.

The Whitworth was the first English gallery built with a park. Part show-off, part social conscience, nobody questioned that art and nature did everybody good.

I asked the Whitworth’s vibrant Director, Dr Maria Balshaw, about who uses the gallery. Under her leadership since 2006, usage has increased by more than 100%.

‘ We’re part of the University, so admission is free and will always be free. And the Whitworth’s situation, outside of the city centre and at the start of the Curry Mile, means we have a high immigrant community around us. For Muslims, an art gallery is permitted space for women and children. And because we have so many activities, as well as our permanent and visiting exhibitions, the gallery is popular. When we reopen, our new building leads all the spaces directly onto the park that Olympic Park designer Sarah Price has re-made for us. We will be re-starting our outdoor art club and art picnics.’

The new design by architects MUMA (McInnes Usher McKnight) uses grand glass and steel wings in the flamboyant spirit of the Victorian original (Victorians didn’t do understatement) to bring light inside and to create a free-flow between Nature and Art.

Foundation engineering allows the big plane trees to stand right by the new space – the chainsaws didn’t have to come out. Ground source heat pumps and passive ventilation ensure that while doubling the size of the footprint, the energy bill has dropped by 10%.

Maria Balshaw is a feisty advocate of public space. She believes we have lost sight of what public space stands for, in all the rows about funding. Galleries, museums, parks, libraries, concert halls, were a response to industrialisation and its oppressive effects on human beings. As Christians, -often Quakers – those Victorian philanthropists whether conservative or socialist knew that man shall not live by bread alone, and that if bread was scarce, food for the soul was even more important.

‘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.’

She’s right. That art and culture isn’t for everyone is an a-historical propaganda war. Think what happened at the end of World War Two – the people’s palaces, the National Theatre, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Festival of Britain, new universities, regional orchestras, the Arts Council (brainchild of Maynard Keynes) the remit of the BBC never to dumb down.

The reason the Labour Party has always been strong on the arts is not because it suits the middle classes but because working class Labour – especially in the industrial north – believed in its own birthright: Education. The Arts. Culture.

Thatcherism waged a war on education, art and culture and the very idea of public space.

Privatisation needs consumerism. It’s a toxic marriage that has sold us the shopping mall as the new people’s palace.

We should look back to history so that we can look forward in time. As society convulses towards a world where the nature of work is being redefined, where unemployment due to automation will increase, and where many people will never own or enjoy the secure private space we once called home, public space will be vital – and no, football pitches and swimming pools aren’t enough. Creativity, culture, the life of the mind are not pointy-headed impositions. Every child ever born wants to paint a picture, dance, sing, hear a story, build a kingdom out of pots and pans.

One of Maria Balshaw’s Whitworth favourites is Brass Baby. Forget Mini-Mozart. Bring your infants to hear a brass band in the great hall. No seats – run, jump, do what you like.

‘Public space isn’t a liability, it’s an asset, she says. ‘This is about social good.’