Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery gears up to reveal its striking makeover
Despite the poor economic climate of recent years, Manchester’s art scene is getting a boost from some welcome funding. Home, a new £25m arts complex set to open in May, has been designed by Mecanoo, the same Dutch practice who gave Birmingham its new public library. Meanwhile, Manchester’s Central Library has recently been extended and refurbished by Ryder architects, and Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios have done the same to Manchester School of Art.
’The city council and the two universities are continuing to invest in culture at a time of austerity,’ says Dr Maria Balshaw, who is in a position to know. Balshaw is director of both the Manchester City Gallery and the Whitworth Art Gallery, and at the latter she is putting the finishing touches on a £15m extension and refurbishment. This significant makeover was carried out by London-based architects MUMA, who also designed the V&A’s Medieval Renaissance Galleries. The Whitworth was ’bursting at the seams’ says Balshaw, with a 55,000-strong collection and 190,000 visitors a year - that’s 90,000 more than the existing building could cope with.
The 126-year-old Whitworth is something of a hidden gem. Part of the University of Manchester, it was England’s first gallery in a park. However that park borders Moss Side, a deprived ward with a troubled history, and the rear wall of the gallery had suffered from graffiti.
Part of MUMA’s solution was to ’punch a hole through’ that back wall, explains Stuart McKnight, who co-directs MUMA together with Simon Usher and Gillian McInnes. This increased the amount daylight getting into the galleries from 16 per cent to 56 per cent, and better connected the building to the parkland. Landscaping by Sarah Price - co-designer of the 2012 London Olympic Park gardens - is now going into the courtyard that has been formed by MUMA’s hole-punching, and by the two wings they have added that extend from the back of the building. One wing houses a study centre and glass promenade gallery, while the other accommodates a long glazed first floor café complete with 5m cantilever over the park.
Apart from the glazing, the new spaces are in red brick, some of it delightfully decorative, echoing the surrounding architecture and the original 19th century building. Add to this some quirky tiled signage by local graphics hero Ben Kelly, and new shop interiors by Callum Lumsden - who brought us Tate Modern’s bookshop - and the Whitworth’s visitors may not just be drawn by its fine collections of wallpapers, textiles and landscape art.
The gallery reopens on 14 February with a festive weekend of events that celebrate art and the new spaces. Highlights include talks with Cornelia Parker, Jeanette Winterson and Stuart McKnight.