The Whitworth Gallery in Manchester sits in Whitworth Park, a valuable green lung now surrounded by the expanded gritty urban environment of this area of Manchester. The original building, completed in 1908 to the design of J W Beaumont in a romantic Jacobean style, has now received a new modern extension which has enabled it to double its public space and reinterpret the Art Museum for the 21st century.
The Whitworth has international collections of watercolours, sculptures, wallpapers and textiles and a modern art collection with works by Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Eduardo Paolozzi, Francis Bacon, David Hockney, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Goch and Pablo Picasso, plus many more.
Now part of the University of Manchester, the Gallery closed in September 2013 for a £15 million redevelopment supported with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the University to provide new galleries, a learning studio, study centre, art garden and the inevitable cafe. Two contemporary new wings, one in brick and one in steel and glass, extend into the park and are connected by a new glass promenade. The renovation and expansion has been designed by the architecture studio MUMA following a design competition and provides new views from the Gallery out into the park, which are reminiscent of the Burrell Collection in Pollok Park in Glasgow. The park itself also houses a number of contemporary sculptures.
The Gallery refurbishment has challenged a few art gallery and museum conventions. One is the current standard for the storage of artworks, often resulting in sterile expensive air-conditioned environments. The engineers Buro Happold have ensured that temperatures and humidity are controlled in a 21st century sustainable way without the need for artificial refrigeration but still maintaining the international standards that will enable loans from other institutions, an approach that is now being adopted by other museums. Another is using spaces flexibly so that lectures, children’s activities and concerts can take place in the same space without expensive specialist equipment or raked seating – a credit to the original architects of the building. Yet another is that the Gallery has adopted the arrangement that is common in art galleries and museums in the USA, which is to take the brave decision not to fill the place with the permanent collection, no matter how good it might be, but to adopt a policy of changing exhibitions, which creates a lively and changing programme and also enables the Gallery to take advantage of international exchanges (which is why a good exhibition of Venetian Renaissance art was able to be seen at the Fort Lauderdale Art Museum a few years ago). Another innovation is the policy of not labelling the artworks, but relying on printed handlists. This works in rooms where there is a relatively small display to see, but not with the portraits where the display covers two floors of several rooms, but could easily be solved by splitting the handlist into sections, and avoids the common and irritating situation of visitors shadowing the pictures as they try and read small-type labels.
Current exhibitions include rooms dedicated to work by Sarah Lucas, Cai Guo-Qiang, Cornelia Parker, Johnnie Shand Kydd and Thomas Schütte.
A great refurbishment of an old friend in Manchester; the Gallery, MUMA and the design team have challenged many existing conventions for art museums and galleries that will mean many repeat visits to Manchester as their exhibition programme evolves.