Art's Halo Effect: Maria Balshaw on the developing art infrastructure in Manchester

By Mark Sheerin | 11 December 2014

As a major artwork by Ryan Gander is unveiled in Beswick, Culture24 talks to the Director of Manchester Art Gallery and the Whitworth about the north-west's changing cultural landscape

Colour photo of a technician polishing a giant steel chess piece
Ryan Gander, Dad's Halo Effect (2014)© Courtesy Mark Waugh
Beswick in East Manchester has been coming up in the world since the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

When the heavy industry first moved out, it was a problem. But now that contemporary art has moved in, we might safely say that the community has found a new confidence and identity.

A photo of the inside of a large gallery under construction
The theatre space at the vast new Home arts centre© Paul Greenwood
Last week saw the unveiling of a new artwork by inventive conceptual artist Ryan Gander. Three steel chessmen now make a focal point for the neighbourhood.

Gander’s piece, which has the involved title Dad’s Halo Effect, is one more sign of this city’s healthy cultural realm. The redevelopment of Beswick includes a new Sixth Form College, a leisure centre and a library.

Few can be better placed to talk about local developments than Maria Balshaw, director of both the Whitworth and Manchester Art Gallery. She confirms that her adopted home is a “really exciting city to be living in and working in at the moment”.

Balshaw gives full credit to the City Council, which has been investing in culture in a big way for some two decades. “The Commonwealth Games saw a huge cultural programme and because of the success of that, they then created an International Festival which has gone from 0 to 90 in the most incredible time.”

MIF has indeed commissioned new work from the likes of Marina Abramović and Bjork and brought the city to worldwide attention.

A photo of a man in a uniform blowing a trumpet in front of a building illuminated red
The Whitworth is expected to reopen in early 2015© Chris Foster Photography
Meanwhile, Mancunians are looking forward to the extension of the Whitworth Gallery and the relocation of Cornerhouse to the new multi-purpose arts centre, Home. 

Those respective reopenings take place in February and Spring 2015, by which point the city will have an art infrastructure to rival the art-loving neighbours down the road in Merseyside, or even the metropolitan elite down South.

“That’s all come through City Council investment and of course because they’ve invested, really interesting people have come to lead the organisations here,” says the busy Director.

Her namechecks include Alex Poots at MIF, Nick Merriman at the Manchester Museum, Sally MacDonald at the Museum of Science and Industry and Dave Moutrey at the soon-to-be Home.

“The Council has done everything it can, even during the downturn, to keep forward momentum going,” says Balshaw. But with the exception of Moutrey, few of the players are from this part of the world, so patriotic feeling for the Republic of Manchester is not necessarily at the root of the success.

A photo of a large curved glass building under construction with diggers in the foreground
The Home construction site in November 2014© Paul Greenwood
Instead, the dynamism comes from the rich infrastructure of a relatively small urban centre, and the affinity, friendship and facility for collaboration which the various directors share. “You can get a lot of things done very quickly," says Balshaw.

The right people are in place at the Council, including Chief Executive Howard Bernstein and its leader, Richard Leese. These two appear to have covered all bases, as Balshaw tells me the former gets the economic value of culture and the latter is a believer in its social value.

“If you haven’t got both of those things right, the city won’t thrive and grow.” Not only has this city thrived, it can now draw investment and cultural tourism from around the world.

When asked what international cities sit in Manchester ‘s peer group, Balshaw tells me that, while capital cities do a different sort of job, her adopted home can still aspire to be like the most “liveable and dynamic” places in the world.

She lists Barcelona, Portland and Montreal as comparable places. “It’s those very fast-growing lively dynamic cities that give us the good models."

News emerged last week of new £78 million arts centre The Factory, which gives the city yet another major performance space and a home for MIF.

The new Barcelona? Well, the Catalans only have one famous football club, up here they have two. If Manchester had a beach, it would have everything.

More from Culture24's Art section:

MIRRORCITY offers diverse reflections of London life at Hayward Gallery

Turner Prize 2014 delivers elitist spectacle we have come to expect

£78 million arts centre The Factory to make Manchester "cultural counterweight" to London

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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