The new-look Whitworth Art Gallery: Director Maria Balshaw on the £15 million development

By Sheila McGregor | 20 February 2015

Maria Balshaw, the Director of the Whitworth Art Gallery, on the reopening of one of Manchester’s best-loved venues following its £15 million transformation

A photo of a woman smiling in a park
© Johnnie Shand Kydd
“The gallery has been reconnected to the park around us and has been opened up to light and to people. That was our aspiration.
In practical terms this means we have expanded the building by a third, creating two new wings that extend out into the park, creating an art garden between them.
The new wings are linked by a beautiful translucent promenade that wraps the back of the old building. In these new areas we have a new landscape gallery, a study centre, a new café that sits in the tree canopy and a learning studio for young people.
We’ve also transformed the existing building. We’ve retained the best of the old – the formal Victorian front entrance, the low ceilinged 1960s galleries that are great for showing our collection.
The main exhibition galleries are unrecognisable though, as we’ve stripped out air conditioning systems and restored the glorious barrel-ceiling spaces.
This is where Cornelia Parker is making her show. We’ve also created new environmentally sustainable collections stores in our former basements and a Collection Centre where people can work with the collection.
We’ve restored the original Grand Hall at the front of the building – it had been divided into staff offices – and created a sculpture terrace, so you can see the art from the road outside.
The opening programme of Cornelia Parker, Cai Guo-Qiang, Sarah Lucas, Thomas Schütte and the riches of our collection feels pretty special.
In the future we will exploit the opportunities the new spaces offer us. So in summer 2015 we’re using the three main exhibition galleries to show 40 years of Chinese Contemporary Art from the Sigg Collection, working in partnership with the new M+ Museum in Hong Kong.
We’ll be doing shows with Bedwyr Williams, Richard Forster, Martin Boyce and Nico Vascellari. We’re also doing a very political show of feminist and socially engaged textile work with artists from across the globe, echoing the Whitworth’s world textiles collection.
We’re working with Artangel again to co-commission a new moving image work by Ben Rivers. And we’ll be working with our friends from Manchester International Festival again, but that’s under wraps for now.
The collections are absolutely central to the vision for the new Whitworth. Opening up the collections to regular visitors, instead of just scholars, has been one of the most important aspects of the redevelopment.
I’m proud to say that our Leader of the Council Richard Leese knows the collections well enough to have personal favourites and works he doesn’t like – nothing can persuade him about the Pre-Raphaelites.
Picking highlights is like trying to pick a favourite child. I can only say that today I was stopped in my tracks by a recent acquisition by Laure Prouvost – which you can see when we open – and also by a delicate portrait of Derek Jarman called The Gardener by Michael Clark. Tomorrow it will be something else.
We collect work by artists here and we show them when they reach that point where our spaces are right for their work. In recent times we’ve had great adventures and made fantastic shows with Ian Rawlinson and Nick Crowe and Pavel Büchler.
You’ll see a new Rachel Goodyear work in one of the new displays. It’s an ongoing generative relationship with artists who make Manchester their home.
My dual responsibility for Manchester City Galleries gives us the real advantage of being able to plan so we are always playing to each gallery’s strengths.
It also gives us the ability to see things from the point of view of a visitor or person living in Manchester: what would they want to see if they had a day to go the Whitworth and the Manchester Art Gallery?
We are able to share collections much more easily and we get to combine forces to do things that are bigger than either could do alone.
I was a Cultural Studies academic, and took a leap into arts and education, working as Director of Creative Partnerships in Birmingham.
I did the Clore Leadership Programme, which had a profound impact on me, and following that I was headhunted for the Director role at the Whitworth. It is a university art gallery, so it connected me back to where I began.
To make a project like this work, you need a great deal of stamina and determination and a very thick skin.
Working on the brief with your own team and making sure you really know what you need before you even engage architects is critical. Hiring great architects who want to listen and collaborate is the next important thing.
The devil really is in the detail. It is upsetting and expensive to find that you have inadvertently agreed to a building sensor exactly where you want to hang a painting.
Finding a mentor who has done capital projects before saved my sanity many times – huge thanks to Tom Bloxham, the Chairman of Urban Splash.
I have learnt a lot of new words, not all of them expletives – ‘thermal mass’, ‘brise soleil’, ‘mullions’. A project manager who does translation for you is important. Knowledge is power.”

A photo of a person walking inside a modern art gallery
Sarah Lucas's works form some of the opening highlights at The Whitworth© David Levene
© David Levene
A photo of the outside of a modern art gallery by a road at night
© David Levene
A photo of the inside of a modern art gallery with red brick walls
© Alan Williams
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More from Culture24's coverage of the Whitworth:

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

Whitworth Art Gallery takes cherished artworks to Selfridges Manchester

A guide to the best new museums, galleries and cultural festivals of 2015
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