by Roderick Conway Morris

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Alan Williams/The Whitworth
The north elevation of the extension of the Whitworth Art Gallery,
designed by MUMA (McInnes Usher McKnight Architects)

Manchester Revives Its Oasis for the Arts

By Roderick Conway Morris
Manchester 14 March 2015


'I have come to the conclusion that a good museum or gallery should be a place where people feel comfortable.'

Margaret Pilkington, who was to become director of Manchester's Whitworth Art Gallery, wrote those words in 1932. She added: 'If it stands in a garden or park, the visitors should be able to enjoy the beauty of the outdoors as a counterpoint to what is within.'

Ms. Pilkington's ideal of the integration of park and gallery has at last been realized as part of a 15 million-pound, or $23 million, project that has expanded the Whitworth by a third and doubled the internal spaces open to the public.

As a venue for temporary exhibitions, the Whitworth also lays claim to be leading the way internationally in applying sustainable, low-energy technology.

When the Whitworth Institute and Park, as it was then called, was founded in 1889, in memory of the local industrialist Sir Joseph Whitworth, its location in a park was unusual for an urban gallery. The original buildings, opened to the public in 1908, were architecturally inward-looking, making little of their verdant setting.

Located in a city that was one of the wealthiest manufacturing centers in the world, especially of cotton cloths, the Whitworth was established as a textile museum, as well as a fine art gallery. An important early acquisition was of British watercolors, including works by Blake, Turner, Cozens and Girtin, a gift from John Edward Taylor, son of the founder of The Manchester Guardian, a newspaper now called The Guardian. Since 1958 the gallery has been part of Manchester University.

Supporters have continued to enrich its holdings over the years. In 1967, the gallery received a major collection of wallpapers, and most recently, the Karpidas Foundation donated 90 pieces of contemporary art. The current holdings total about 55,000 pieces.

Between 2005 and 2013 the number of annual visitors to the Whitworth increased by 120 percent, rising to 190,000. The re-opening in mid-February attracted 18,000 over the first weekend alone.

'The university and the city are on a joint mission to change perceptions about Manchester, particularly internationally,' said Maria Balshaw, who has been director of the Whitworth since 2006 and also, since 2011, of the nearby Manchester City Galleries.

'They both believe in culture as a means of regenerating the city,' she said. 'The university has global ambitions and sees an important gallery, a really beautiful gallery, as an essential part of that.'

But if the transformation of the museum is designed to create 'spaces for the internationally important collections that we have,' Ms. Balshaw said, it is also creating a cultural institution for the city and the region. Two British funding bodies, the Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England, along with Manchester University, contributed a combined £14 million of the £15 million project cost.

The transformation of the building has been carried out by McInnes Usher McKnight Architects, or MUMA, which won an international competition that attracted 139 entrants. The same firm won awards for the remodeling of the permanent Medieval and Renaissance Galleries at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, opened in 2009, which included the replacement of air conditioning with more eco-friendly systems.

Sustainability was a central element of the Whitworth project, according to Ms. Balshaw: 'It seemed hypocritical to be saying we are a gallery in a park, a green gallery, and not be 'green.''

While the area of the museum was expanded by a third, the target was for overall energy consumption to be reduced by 10 percent. This has been achieved by, among other measures, removing the air-conditioning systems from the old galleries and installing air ducts fed by underground tubes and ground-source heat-pumps buried in the park; shading the new glassed-in promenades on the west side of the building with fine stainless steel slats; and lowering the floor of the basement and insulating it to create a new storage area for the collections that takes advantage of the naturally more even temperatures at that level.

The expansion of the building includes the upper and lower promenades running along its western end, with a new park entrance to the museum at ground level, and two new wings containing a landscape gallery and a stylish cafe glassed in on three sides. The elements are all designed to maximize views of the surrounding park and to open up sight lines within the building.

False ceilings have been removed from the three large parallel central galleries to restore their lofty 19th-century barrel vaults and natural top lighting. Meticulous attention has been paid to the building's detail and appearance, including the use of a custom 'Whitworth Blend' of red brick on the new outer walls, laid to echo the pleating, fringes and other decorative patterns of historic textiles. 'We've used traditional architectural features and craft techniques but applied them to modern design,' Stuart McKnight of MUMA said.

For the re-opening, the Whitworth is staging 10 temporary exhibitions to showcase some of the most important pieces in its collections and temporary loans. These include new acquisitions, portraits, watercolors, textiles, a retrospective of Cornelia Parker's work, art from the 1960s, sculptures and wallpaper by Sarah Lucas, and a gigantic 'gunpowder painting' by Cai Guo-Qiang, in the new landscape gallery.

The three halls of the central galleries are given over to the Parker retrospective, featuring 'Cold Dark Matter' (1991) — the suspended pieces of a garden shed she had blown up by the British Army — and 'The Distance,' consisting of Rodin's 'The Kiss' (on loan from the Tate) wrapped in a mile of string.

Inspired by ancient Chinese painting, 'Unmanned Nature' (2008) by Mr. Cai is a 148-foot-long and 13-foot-high work on Japanese hemp paper arranged around a reflecting pool of water. It has the appearance of an ink and watercolor painting but was in fact created by the controlled searing of the paper with burning gunpowder.

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024