Hit The North! The best exhibitions to see in the North of England in 2016

By Richard Moss | 29 December 2015 | Updated: 31 March 2016

What are the best exhibitions to see in the North of England? Follow our constantly updated guide to the best in the Northwest, Manchester, Liverpool, Yorkshire and the North East

a painted oil in dark muted colours of an elderly man in artist's cap
Rembrandt, Self Portrait at the Age of 63© The National Gallery, London
Cumbria, the Lakes and Lancashire

We start in the Lakes, at Abbot Hall Gallery in Kendal where the New Year ushers in an ambitious programme of new exhibitions starting with  (March 11 - June 25) which features some of Ford’s uncanny sculptures with some new works sprawling across the lawns and galleries – including at the Lakeland Arts sister venue Blackwell, The Arts & Crafts House (March 11 – September 4).  

Hot on its heels is  (March 19 – May 15) which, being part of the National Gallery’s masterpiece tour, takes a close look – including x-ray insights – at  the poignant portrait painted in the last year of the great Dutch artist’s life.

Abbot Hall will also take this opportunity to show works from their own collection focusing upon portraiture including of Lady Anne Clifford who was alive at the same time as Rembrandt and the monumental The Great Picture Triptych painted in 1646 featuring Lady Anne’s family history and accomplishments.

Summer brings  (July 8 - October 15), which explores the paintings she made in Cumbria, where she lived for large parts of her life. The show will include over 40 paintings, many previously unseen from private collections.

The autumn winter exhibition  (October 29 – December 17) brings works by British artists including Frank Auerbach, John Craxton, Lucian Freud, Antony Gormley, Alistair Gray, Barbara Hepworth, David Hockney, L S Lowry, Henry Moore, William Scott, Walter Sickert, Stanley Spencer and many others.

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At Blackwell, The Arts and Crafts House, between the ongoing Edmund de Waal display and ’s bizarre sculptural creatures stalking the gardens, the autumn exhibition is  (October – December) a wonderful homage to Annie Garnett (1864 – 1942), the legendary Arts and Crafts designer and entrepreneur who became a key figure in the revival of hand spinning and weaving in the Lake District.

At Carlisle’s Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, (March 5 –  June 5) mines the museum’s collection of Cumbrian artwork including Sam Bough’s atmospheric landscapes, William James Blaclock’s watercolours and modern artworks by Winfred Nicholson and Sheila Fell. It’s also a chance to see Julian Cooper’s massive, craggy painting of Honister Crag, at Fleetwith Pike in the Lakes.

The British Museum touring exhibition,  (March 12 – May 8) also arrives at Tullie House for stay – with jewellery, tablets, parchments and other treasures from the tombs exploring the diversity of written culture in the time of the Pharaohs.   

Internationally renowned Dutch sculptor brings his intriguing pieces to the Sculpture Centre at Bury Art Museum and Sculpture Centre. Known for creating eye-catching, playful sculptures to fill public spaces across Europe, Auke de Vries' exhibition brings around 25 sculptures plus works on paper to the space.

In Preston The Harris’s  (until April 30 2016) explores how British style for both men and women evolved during a time of major social, political and cultural change between the 1880s and 1930s.

Japanese girl-Manga in Southport

Heading coastward, The Atkinson in Southport has a vibrant programme lined up for 2016 including Hayward Touring/Arts Council Collection exhibition,  (February 20 – May 22) featuring a selection of 20th century paintings by the likes of Walter Sickert, Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Paula Rego and Richard Hamilton.

By contrast  (January 16 – November 13) mines the Atkinson’s outstanding collection of Victorian art to look at the themes of travel, storytelling, the antique past and nature.

The gallery also opens its new selling gallery, The Landing, in February 2016 with an exhibition of colourful and expressive works for sale by  (February 6 – May 15).


Manchester Art Gallery’s,  (February 13 – June 5) brings eight international contemporary artists together to explore the theme of machines and the imitation of life – partly inspired by Manchester’s rich history of engineering.

Artists include Yu-Chen Wang, the Museum of Science and Industry’s artist-in-residence in 2015, who is working on a film, sci-fi text, installation and performance based on the human qualities of machines. Paul Granjon, meanwhile is developing a new work called Am I Robot, featuring a “robotic presence” which roams the gallery, interacting with visitors in some surprising and intriguing ways.

Alongside,  (until April 17 2016) showcases a decade of digital artworks by the Manchester-based artist referencing popular culture.

Later in the summer the National Portrait Gallery’s Vogue 100: A Century of Style (June 24 – October 30) arrives with over 280 prints from the Condé Nast archive showcasing the range of photography commissioned by British Vogue since it was founded in 1916.

A picture of a young boy and glowing orb
Icarus at the Edge of Time © Al and Al, World Science Festival
Also in the heart of the metropolis, Manchester’s newest art centre, HOME, is hatching a spectacular new exhibition by art-film duo Al and Al. It includes a film in which Icarus journeys to the edge of a black hole, drawings, an installation and a live concert hall performance by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra - wrapped  up under the moniker  (February 6 – April 10).

A pretty major undertaking, the epic sci-fi art odyssey is united by three ‘spectacular journeys’ the artists have made with ground-breaking scientists Professor Brian Greene, Alan Turing and Dr. Bart Hoogenboom.  

According to the release, Al and Al have created “three Multiverse journeys across space and time, travelling from the atomic scale reality of DNA into the mind of thinking machines in the future who believe Alan Turing is their Creator, through to the point of no return at the edge of a black hole.”

I’m sold. Who else is in?

In the Northern Quarter, The Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art has a six-month exhibition programme showcasing a series of rolling solo exhibitions that go on to feature Cao Fei, Lee Mingwei, Tsang Kin-Wah and susan pui san lok (until the end of June 2016).

At the Museum of Science and Industry, you can still catch  (until April 17) and  (until May 15) featuring Tania Kovats’ All the Seas, a collection of sea water from across the globe and Tide, a live and interactive real time digital animation map bringing the UK tide to life.

Spring at the museum sees the opening of the third Wellcome Image Awards exhibition (from March 16) showcasing the best in science imaging talent and techniques before summer brings Wonder Materials: Graphene and Beyond (July 23 - summer 2017) which fuses art with science to tell the story of the remarkable 2D material.

First isolated at the University of Manchester in 2004 by two Russian-born physicists, Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov (for which they won the Nobel Prize), Graphene is the world’s first ever two-dimensional material. One atom thick, it is the strongest, lightest and most conductive material of its kind.

Random International, whose Rain Room installation has toured internationally have also been commissioned to create a new site-specifc work for the exhibition - an artistic response to their residency at the National Graphene Institute in Manchester last year.

A brisk stride across town and down Oxford Road will take you to Manchester Museum where  (until April 10) takes Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a jumping off point for a deconstruction and reconstruction of savage colonialism. While you're there don't forget to catch Gifts for the  (until April 17 2016).

Another big year at the Whitworth

a photo of a series of green panels in a gallery
Nico Vascellari opening at the Whitworth in February
And then of course we’re at The Whitworth, where they begin the New Year by exploring revolutionary design works from the 1950s and 60s via two major exhibitions.

A retrospective of the post-war textile designer  (until August) evaluates the way he shaped design discourse throughout the mid-twentieth century, featuring his innovative textiles, photography, ceramics and drawings, from his studies in Vienna to the formation of the ground-breaking Tibor Ltd.

Wallpaper (until September 4) looks at the interior design trends of the past that are still popular today via wallpaper techniques and the bold and colourful patterns that referenced the fashion of the day.

Ben Rivers’ cinematic take on the desert travels of Morroco-based American writer Paul Bowles will offer an immersive treat in  (February 25 – May 22). Fusing archive film with newly shot material in hand-processed 16mm CinemaScope, Rivers journeys across the Moroccan landscape for a film shown in specially designed viewing spaces made from old film sets.

A year after his performance at the Whitworth’s re-opening weekend, Nico Vascellari returns to Manchester with a large solo exhibition occupying the Landscape Gallery.  (February 25 – September 18) visitors will be transported into locations from the artist’s own childhood, each surrounded in legend and hidden history.

Using light, shadow and a soundtrack created in collaboration with Turkish-born musician Ghédalia Tazartès, the works will recreate the eerie and haunted forests of Northern Italy combining performance, sculpture, video and sound. All of it beautifully infused with the colour green.

While you're in the vicinity, The Gallery of Costume, part of Manchester Art Gallery but as ever based at Platt Hall in Rusholme, (ongoing until October 9 2016) is worth catching as it showcases the bold, blingy but elegant creations of the Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli.

Castlefield Gallery have lined up an adventurous year of exhibitions.

a complex painting of naked figures
Inside Out at Castlefield Gallery: Marlene Stey, Mooney's Downside (with extra time she could have made side dishes)© All rights reserved
(March 4 – April 24) brings together artists from across the world who might be termed Outsider Artists. As well as grappling with the tricky question of what Outsider Art is, the exhibition looks at the artists shared aesthetic concerns and considers their potential to express or confront the difficult nature of being in the world.

Diagonal Noise (May 27 – July 17), invites a selection of artists based in Belgium to exhibit existing, new and site-specific work and Head to Head (September 2 – November 6) is the now annual exhibition pairing two artists at different stages in their career to explore the relationship between their practices (artist details TBA).

The autumn show sounds fascinating; Miniature World (November 18 2016  – January 22 2017) will see the gallery work with hobbyists, amateurs and contemporary artists to explore our fascination with miniatures, models and dioramas. Ahhhh… the smell of Humbrol.

Down by the docks 2016 sees Imperial War Museum North host the wonderful Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style (dates TBC), fresh from its successful run in London.


At FACT, there's Ryoichi Kurokawa: unfold (March 11 -  June 12), in which the Japanese artist transports audiences into space through beautifully visual and sonic environments showcasing the birth of stars.

And the nearby Bluecoat is the venue hosting the New Contemporaries exhibition, featuring the best of graduate talent – traditionally shown during the Liverpool Biennial (July 9 – October 16).

2016 sees The Lady Lever re-open its South End Galleries (spring 2016, date TBC), following a £2.8m refurbishment project to transform 500 square metres of gallery space.

The galleries will be returned to their original architectural design and objects including the best collection of Wedgwood jasperware in the world, one of the finest collections of Chinese porcelain in Europe and outstanding 18th-century paintings, furniture and sculpture, will be on show in stunning new displays.

The Pre-Raphaelites return

a painting of a flame haired young woman reclining in a meadow
In the Grass, about 1864–5, Arthur Hughes (1832–1915), Exhibited at the Liverpool Academy in 1865, lent by George Rae© Museums Sheffield
At The Walker Art Gallery they will be unveiling some of the most enduring and popular works of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, in  (February 12 - June 5) featuring more than 120 paintings by leading Pre-Raphaelite artists, including loans from institutions and private collections across the UK.

The  (July 9 - November 27) will form part of Liverpool Biennial 2016 festival of contemporary art. A selection of shortlisted works will be displayed in the exhibition, including five prize-winning paintings, one of which will be awarded the £25,000 first prize.

World Museum’s 2016 exhibition programme opens in January with the family-friendly exhibition  (until September 4), returning for its 10th anniversary after an extensive tour across Europe.

World Museum will also play host to some ancient Egyptian visitors from October, as Manchester Museum’s  (14 October 2016 to 26 February 2017) arrives to explore the religious practice of offering animal mummies to the gods and a recreation of a subterranean animal catacomb.

On the waterfront, The Museum of Liverpool will display the second of its First World War: Reflecting on Liverpool’s Home Front exhibition series (June 17 – October 2016), this time focusing on the relief and charitable activities of the city and its people during the War period.

A fascinating exhibition of original film posters highlighting Liverpool’s cinematic history in Reel Stories: Liverpool and the Silver Screen (March 11 2016 - January 2017), explores numerous themes that demonstrate Liverpool’s star quality as the most-filmed city in the UK outside of London.

At the International Slavery Museum (May 13 – December 11) celebrates the importance of role models and icons in combating the legacies of racism and discrimination shown through artist Jon Daniel’s personal collection of pop cultural heroes and heroines of the African diaspora.

At Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool Pilots (July 22 2016 - February 2017) celebrates the vital role of navigating ships in and out of the Port of Liverpool, marking their 250th year.

Tate Liverpool has a cracking major summer show with (May 18 – September 18) which will bring together some of Bacon’s most powerful works with a focus on their spatial structure and “ghostly architectural compositions”. Alongside,  (18 May – September 18 2016) explores the searing yet funny self-representational artwork of the enigmatic Austrian painter who died in 2014 aged 94.

A semi abstract painting of a seated man
Francis Bacon, Seated Figure 1961 © Estate of Francis Bacon
October brings  (October 21 2016 - March 12 2017), a major figure of post-war art, renowned for his dazzling monochrome paintings and for pioneering new attitudes towards the relationship between art and life.

Hot on its heels is (21 October 2016 – 12 March 2017), a first UK retrospective of sculptures, interventions and installations from a key figure in Poland’s neo-avant-garde.

2016 also sees the return of The Liverpool Biennial (July 9 – October 16), the city’s festival of contemporary art, which this year will see 37 artists making new work in galleries, museums, pubs, unused spaces, stations, hotels, parking lots, shops and supermarkets.

The international roster this year includes Marvin Gaye Chetwynd (Australia/UK), Jason Dodge (USA), Mark Leckey (UK), Betty Woodman (USA), Lawrence Abu Hamdan (Jordan/UK/Lebanon) and Koenraad Dedobbeleer (Belgium).


If you’re visiting Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 2016 there’s still time to catch and his slow-mo film sculptures, which are in residence in YSP’s Underground Gallery and Chapel (until April 4 2016) highlighting the last 20 years of Viola’s career together with a new work.

a photo of a large childlike sculpture in a garden
KAWS, Small Lie, 2013© Courtesy the artist
February sees the first UK museum exhibition of work by the renowned American artist , (February 2 – June 12) and his wide raging artworks including paintings, sculpture, graphic design, toys and prints inside the gallery and outside in the park.

(March 19 – June 5)
highlights works of domestic scale from the Arts Council Collection, exploring and celebrating the broad concepts that ‘Home’ signifies. The exhibition comprises works by artists including Yoko Ono, Joseph Beuys, Edward Weston, Richard Hamilton, Damien Hirst, Gary Hume, Christo and Sophie Calle. Fancy a work by any one of these worthies on your wall or mantelpiece?

Not Vital at YSP

(May 2 2016 – January 2 2017) is the first major exhibition in the UK of work by sculptor, traveller, painter, architect and anything-that-takes-his-fancy Swiss artist Not Vital.

Working with craftsmen around the world; from steel-chasers in Beijing and glass blowers in Murano, to Tuareg silversmiths in Agadez and papermakers in Bhutan, Vital’s work often references nature and anthropomorphism, a relationship to home and to travel, and the surreal. As befits his peripatetic tendencies, he will be both inside the galleries and outside in the park.

Summer sees (June 25 – September 4) take the exceptional light qualities of Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s historic 18th century Chapel as inspiration for a shifting show of political perspectives featuring Eva Rothschild, Angela Bulloch, Raphael Hefti, Hayley Newman, Hiraki Sawa, Alice Channer, Garth Evans and Yelena Popova.

(June 25 – October 30) brings the stable of artists working with the tasteful interior design/art company St Jude’s for a series of 2D and 3D limited edition works.

Alongside, the figurative sculpture of the is curated by Ryan Gander (July 16 – October 16) before  (November 12 2016 – February 26 2017) brings the graphic block prints and layered coloured silkscreens inspired by animals and nature of Angela Harding to the YSP centre.


Heading back into the city, the good people of Leeds are in for a transitional year will be seeing in the New Year with a brace of new art commissions including the new Kirkgate Market Mural and the new Leeds Train Station artwork (both completed January 18) as part of the Unfold programme, which accompanied British Art Show 8 at Leeds Art Gallery.  

Leeds Art Gallery closed its doors on January 10 to carry out essential repairs to the original roof of the historic Victorian building with many artworks going out on loan across the UK and Europe.

Staff will also use the time to research their John Sell Cotman collection, in readiness for a major exhibition in 2017 as part of an ambitious programme of exhibitions and displays across the entire gallery. 

At The Henry Moore Institute, (until April 17) is the first solo showing of the late Serbian artist's work in Britain and A (March 24 - June 19) takes the out-there sculptural provocations of British artist John Latham as inspiration for a group show of work by sculptural adventurers like Marcel Broodthaers, Tony Cragg, Marcel Duchamp, Yves Klein, Mary Kelly and Cornelia Parker - among many others.

At The Tetley, No Quiet Place (March 18 – June 13) sees experimental artists from the UK and across the globe come together for a group exhibition that demonstrates the tension of everyday noise through installation, sculpture and soundworks.

Over in Bradford the National Media Museum has Great Interactions: Photographs by Polly Braden (February 27 - April 10) a moving and hugely inspiring exhibition highlighting the everyday interactions and life-changing experiences of people with learning disabilities and autism.

Braden spent two years working with charity MacIntyre, capturing everyday moments, achievements and milestones. As the exhibition blurb puts it, “the subject is complex but the aim is simple: to highlight everyday interactions and life-changing experiences”.

Alec Soth: Gathered Leaves (April 22 – June 26) features the haunting, intimate portraits, desolate landscapes and wide open wildernesses of one of the world's foremost documentary photographers.

Soth's four signature series – Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), Niagara (2006), Broken Manual (2010) and the most recent, Songbook (2014) – will be featured together with highlights of his remarkable career.

The Rhubarb Triangle and Kettles Yard

a photo of a house interior with lots of art on the white walls
House extension, upstairs Designed by Sir Leslie Martin, opened in 1970© Kettle’s Yard University of Cambridge
The new exhibition is a new commission and major survey exhibition by British photographer (until June 12) will be the biggest survey since his 2002 Barbican retrospective and features over 300 photographs from a 40-year career.

As well as key series like The Last Resort and Common Sense, the show features a new commission, The Rhubarb Triangle, a series of photographs taken over the last 12 months in an area of countryside known as ‘The Rhubarb Triangle’ between Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell in West Yorkshire.

The spring brings an exhibition highlighting a new bequest for the gallery of twentieth century artworks. The Tim Sayer Bequest (April 30 – September 2016) features some beautiful modern British and contemporary artists’ works from the personal collection of a recently retired BBC Radio 4 newswriter who has been passionately and enthusiastically collecting art for over 50 years.

Kettle’s Yard Reimagined / Anthea Hamilton (May 28 2016 – Spring 2017) will display key works from Kettle’s Yard within the context of the Wakefield Collection, drawing parallels between these two excellent modern British collections. After six months, the exhibition will be ‘remixed’ by Anthea Hamilton who will feature her work alongside both collections.

The summer show,  (June 24 – September 25), will be the first major UK survey of Spencer’s work in 15 years and will explore the variety of themes, including religion, portraiture, sexuality and domestic life depicted in his richly detailed paintings.

Charlotte Brontë’s bicentenary

Heading back into the Yorkshire countryside, there’s an enticing exhibition at Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, who celebrate Charlotte Brontë’s bicentenary year with an exhibition curated by the novelist Tracey Chevalier.

(until January 1 2017) explores the contrast between Charlotte’s constricted life and her huge ambition.

a photo of a fragment of a dress overlaid on a handwritten manuscript
Charlotte Great and Small at Bronte Parsonage© Courtesy Bronte Parsonage, Haworth
Highlights include Charlotte’s child-size clothes, tiny books and paintings she made, a scrap from a dress she wore to an important London dinner party, and a moving love letter loaned by the British Library especially for the bicentenary.

Quotes from Charlotte’s letters and writings will be projected onto the walls to demonstrate the scale of her hopes and dreams. Artists will also respond to the idea of the miniature via installations throughout the centenary year.  

Staying on the literary theme, if you fancy a wizard adventure on the coast there’s a jolly exciting show at Scarborough Museum and Art Gallery (March 26 – June 26) is the Seven Stories touring exhibition celebrating the life and work of cerebrated children’s author.  

The Scarborough Museum collection is also heading out into the town in 2016 with a new pop-up, beach-hut themed, mini museum, featuring automata and diorama inspired by the Scarborough Collections - all presented in a tactile, multi-sensory and visually inspiring way.


Down in South Yorkshire  (until June 5) at The Graves Art Gallery in Sheffield takes the ideas of the Victorian critic and scholar as a starting point to explore the act of making. Paintings, drawings and publications by William Morris, Albrecht Durer and Ruskin himself go on show alongside work by contemporary artists, including Tracey Emin and Grayson Perry.

There’s time to catch the intriguing investigation of the myths of Ancient Egypt at Weston Park whose  (until April 10 2016) explores objects spanning 4,000 years to unearth the truth buried beneath popular myths surrounding one of the world’s greatest ancient civilisations.

The ambitious international festival that brings together new commissions, exhibitions, performances and events across the steel city, Art Sheffield 2016 (March 19 – April 30), returns to venues and off-site locations across Sheffield.

As well as a chance to check out some new contemporary artworks it’s also an opportunity to explore the city’s vibrant contemporary gallery and artist led studio scene.

North East

Over at The Laing, February brings  (February 13 – April 24) which highlights the Renaissance master’s many interests – painting, sculpture, engineering, zoology, botany, mapmaking and anatomy – as well as his use of different media – pen and ink, red and black chalks, watercolour and metalpoint.

On Wearside, Sunderland’s Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art has Jonathan Baldock, Nicholas Pope & Maria Zahle (March 19 – June 18) showcasing a new sculptural installation by Baldock with sculptures by Pope and Zahle.  

Over at The National Glass Centre (until August 31 2016) explores the world renowned collection of The Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington and Drawing.

(February 8 – April 24) is a glass, ceramics and music project that saw 25 young people with additional needs work with artists to design and make their own percussion instruments from glass and ceramics.

As well as a performance led by glass percussionist Brendan Murphy, an exhibition of the instruments sits alongside the participant’s music recordings.

At The Bowes Museum there is still time to see the portraits of  (until April 24 2016).

The new exhibition programme for 2016 includes Anthony Clark A.R.C.A: Burning Belief (February 27 – May 1) featuring over 50 of his atmospheric paintings, drawings and etchings.

(May 14 - September 25) celebrates nearly five hundred years of English female beauty, from the court beauties of the 17th century to the society ladies of Edwardian England.

(May 21 - September 18) is part of British Museum touring display that in Durham will feature a Ganesha sculpture alongside complimentary Gouache paintings and woodcut prints that depict Ganesh in traditional scenes.

At MIMA, Congolese Plantation Workers Art League (until May 15) features the work of plantation workers who engage in art making at settlements of the Institute for Human Activities in the country’s rainforest.

The show features sculptural portraits or representations of art-market figures such as the collector, which have been moulded from clay and then reproduced in Belgian chocolate through multiple technologies, including 3D scanning and printing.

Profits generated from the sale of the works are directed back to the plantation workers, improving their living conditions and helping redressing global economic inequalities.

What do you think? Have we missed something? Use the comment box below to tell us.

Explore more of our regional guides:

The best exhibitions to see in the East of England in 2016
The best exhibitions to see in London in 2016
The best exhibitions to see in the Midlands in 2016
The best exhibitions to see in Scotland in 2016
The best exhibitions to see in the South East in 2016
The best exhibitions to see in the South West in 2016
The best exhibitions to see in Wales in 2016

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