The Whitworth, part of The University of Manchester, is home to internationally renowned collections of modern art, textiles, watercolours, prints, drawings and sculpture. Created in 1889, and sited within a public park, the Whitworth is developing a new vision for the role of a university gallery. A creative laboratory within an ambitious university, the Whitworth is serious in intent but playful in execution.
During 2014 the Whitworth underwent the largest transformation in its history with a L15 million development project by MUMA (McInnes Usher McKnight Architects). The redevelopment, supported by major Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England grants, by The University of Manchester and other funders, doubled public space and created state-of-the-art new facilities including expanded gallery spaces, a study centre, a learning studio, and a collections centre.
2014: The Whitworth as an ‘Open’ Closed Gallery
In 2014, as well as transforming our building, we were the most open ‘closed’ museum ever encountered, with pop-ups across Manchester and beyond, staying connected to established audiences and building new ones.
Our most ambitious project saw a pop-up gallery in Selfridges department store, Manchester, seen by their 200,000+ customers as part of a Festival of the Imagination. Including Epstein’s ‘Genesis’, Freud’s ‘Man’s Head’, and prints by Dürer, Picasso and Emin, the exhibition was central to a programme of workshops, talks and debates.
Our Learning Engagement Team ran extensive off-site activities at 30 sites across the city, directly engaging 6,900 people of all ages, many of whom had never visited the gallery. The team worked in new environments, making lots of friends, including partnerships with Greater Manchester hospitals, developing creative work supporting rehabilitation from stroke, and programmes for people living with dementia. Staff spent extended time in schools and colleges focusing on areas of low cultural participation; we recruited a team of young reporters who documented our capital project, meeting the design team, visiting the site and blogging about progress, while a collaboration with the University Students’ Union saw a range of student-curated programmes and cultural activities across campus.
‘After Hours’, our art and social programme, has been one of the great successes of the past few years, bringing a younger adult audience to the gallery for the first time. While the gallery was closed, this took place in local pubs as The Whitworth Pub Crawl. Including live music with projected collection images, drawing, photography, quizzes and textile workshops, it attracted our regular audience and lots of new faces amongst 800+ attendees. A placement in a residential care home, exploring how older people want to connect with the gallery, saw an increasing focus on age friendly work and recognition for our national contribution and leadership in this area. The Whitworth has been a leading advocate for an age-inclusive approach to the arts in Manchester for many years and has been rightly recognized nationally as innovative, original and inspirational.
Despite limited access to our collections in 2014, we facilitated the loan of 200 objects to 40 worldwide venues, including Tate Britain, the National Gallery of Canada, Moscow’s Pushkin Museum, and an exhibition of Turner watercolours in London. This all kept our national and international profile high and the sense of excitement around our re-opening demonstrated just how much the Whitworth had been missed.
2015:The new Whitworth
Our new building finally realizes the Whitworth’s potential as a gallery in a park, with our founding mission: to be “for the perpetual gratification of the people of Manchester”. MUMA have created a beautiful yet practical gallery where collections are celebrated. 100% more public space accommodates growing audiences, allows us to show more of our collection and create more ambitious exhibitions. There are new spaces for all types of activity – from up-close object study to messy workshops for families.
We have an elegant extension: a brick wing has a Landscape Gallery and Study Centre, while a translucent glass and steel wing for the Café and Learning Studio sits lightly in the trees; they are joined by an airy promenade overlooking an Art Garden. Four huge gallery spaces – three extensively refurbished, revealing 19th century barrel vault ceilings, and one completely new – are visible from outside, enticing park users into the gallery.Access to our own collection (over 60,000 works) was also central to the project. We’ve created a new environmentally sustainable collection store and public Collections Centre. Visitors can drop in to see anything from our collections, assisted by curators and volunteers, while a large, light-filled Study Centre accommodates student groups allowing collections to be integrated into undergraduate and postgraduate teaching, informal adult learning programmes and individual research. Work like this typifies our identity as a university art gallery committed to connecting with the widest possible public audience. We are very proud to say that this could happen “only in Manchester”.
Our newly restored relationship with our surrounding park has extended exhibitions beyond our walls with outdoor sculptures located in the Art Garden, Sculpture Terrace and park. Presiding over the Art Garden is Nathan Coley’s “Gathering of Strangers” (2007), a new acquisition articulating our aspiration for the Whitworth – a place where strangers meet and feel welcomed.
For the first time, our expanded building allows us to provide extensive volunteering opportunities for people from neighbouring communities. We have recruited 135 volunteers: Art Gardeners help maintain outdoor areas, Collections Centre volunteers offer assistance to visitors accessing collections, Event Volunteers support activities, and Art Walk Volunteers help people get active.
We have introduced art walks, health walks and kids’ ‘welly’ walks, to help visitors enjoy the art inside and out, and actively support well-being. A three year Esmée Fairbairn Foundation grant has funded a Cultural Park Keeper – tasked to bring nature, culture and people together in the park and gallery, with participatory activities for families including a ‘lads and dads’ outdoor art club and mass bio-blitzes. We’ve established an accredited volunteer horticultural therapy programme supported by mental health charities.
Despite increasing the building’s footprint by 30% and public space by 100%, the design of our new building will see a 10% reduction in energy consumption and carbon emissions. Infrastructural improvements, including ground source heat pumps, earth tubes, photovoltaics, and reclaimed materials, and challenging BS:5454 environmental parameters in order to replace air conditioning, have created the UK’s first passively controlled temporary exhibition galleries. Collection Care staff are leading sectoral change around broader environmental parameters for collections and loans. It is an approach now being adopted by other museums and one of the project’s most significant achievements. Architectural critics have praised the expanded building’s elegance and thoughtfulness and highlighted how our pioneering approach to sustainability is changing international museum practice.
In February 2015 we reopened to the public to great acclaim and have been rewarded with soaring visitor figures - 440,000 in our first year. MUMA’s building is, in the words of Hugh Pearman (Sunday Times, UK): “a great new public facility that deserves to command respect from its community”. The Whitworth has finally realized its full potential as a major UK cultural destination. Our building matches the international reputation of our collections and our aim is to bring these together with the very best work by contemporary artists, and our diverse audiences, offering new and exciting ways for people to engage with art.
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