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There's a two tier system when it comes to art galleries, or that's the way I see it. Over the last few years I've taken in some of the top galleries on 3 continents. I've ducked inside seeking shelter from the rain in Hamburg, the wind in Chicago, the sun in Brisbane and the Japanese tourists in Vienna. I've shopped and eaten and explored some of the most famous pieces of art work known to man. And I've enjoyed doing so, in what have invariably been top-tier galleries. Then there are the other ones - the galleries that people don't talk about, don't drop into conversation at dinner partiers, don't parade around with shopping bags from. This may be because they're smaller, it may be because they're in out of the way places few people visit, or it may be because most of their pieces are by an artist who doesn't have their own page on Wikipedia. Whatever the reason, I try to squeeze in a few of these galleries now and then, to escape the crowds, to help me appreciate the bigger ones more, and, sometimes, just to check they've not got any special secrets tucked away that no one's bothered to tell me about.
Manchester is a city known for lots of things, one of which is not art unless you could the Lowry dude, and really he's been claimed by Salford anyway. That said, the city boasts a number of art galleries, the most well known of which is the aptly named Manchester Art Gallery on Mosley Street in the city centre. The Whitworth Art Gallery, on the other hand, is it's smaller, less visited cousin a short trek away. The Whitworth attracts an interesting mix of visitors precisely because of its location - it's a mile and a bit out of the centre of Manchester. It's easy to get to because it's between the university and the main student areas, served by the busiest bus route in Europe, but heading the other way, from the gallery back into town, you won't come across many other places of interest to visitors to the city, and therefore few make the trip. So who does go to Whitworth? If I were to hazard a guess I'd say art students (it's near the University), other students (it's free to get in), the occasional NHS employee (it's across the road from 3 hospitals and within easy walking distance of a further one) and locals like me who really have nothing better to do on a Sunday afternoon. The opening times restrict the people who can go along - Monday to Saturday 10am-5pm and Sunday 2-5pm doesn't leave a lot of time for those who work - but also help to keep the gallery free of charge, which I do think is important. The atmosphere is laid back and friendly, and it's not the sort of gallery people dress up for as they might the Metropolitan in NYC - on my last visit I went in board shorts and a vest and felt fine.
The gallery was founded in 1889 with a donation from Sir Joseph Whitworth but since 1958 has been a part of University of Manchester. From the outside it now looks like a grand, old house that has been very well preserved. Inside the works are on two floors. There are 7 rooms, halls, courts and galleries which sounds like a lot until you notice that some of them have fewer than a dozen pieces in. The gallery's collection includes around 43 000 pieces but only a tiny proportion of these are on display at any one time.
As you would expect, the gallery is set out in the usual way. The rooms are spacious, subtly lit and full of wooden floors and great, huge windows overlooking the park. The works are neatly labeled, though the content of these blurbs is somewhat bizare - several talk of how this particular piece or other came to be hanging where it now is, others mention a little about the artist's life, but few discuss the pieces themselves, giving you a history of what they're supposed to be about, or the message they're supposed to be delivering. The best, and by that I mean most informative, displays I find to be the temporary collections, when you'd think it would be the other way around.
At this time of year I like galleries for the cool climate they offer. This place is currently filled with portable fans but these seem to have little effect, though the whole building is thankfully naturally cool. The current temporary exhibit, about clothing in ancient Egypt, on the other hand, has become rather chilly though over air conditioning, and I hurried through it faster than I normally would have done.
The art here is an utterly random mix of pieces. There are some interesting contemporary pieces, some unusual drawings, some tasteful watercolours, some antique clothing and some crisp, modern sculptures. They have some famous names among the collection, though invariably the pieces of these people are little known efforts they created prior to making it big, or once they lost their touch. It's all very well to be able to say, "Yes, yes, we have a Damien Hirst upstairs" but when you then point out, "it's a weird thing with gem stones, presented in the style of a geology text book", people's interest tends to wane.
The galleries, especially those on the mezzanine level, have a thrown-together, almost amateurish feel to them. On one wall, for example, you'll find ugly creatures reminiscent of Where The Wild Things Are (Ana Maria Pocheco's "The Longest Journey") right along side the gorgeous "White Ice" by Anya Gallaccio, a picture that could be lifted from an expensive, tasteful Christmas Card. Then, just around the corner, there's an interesting tapestry featuring Micky Mouse and several famous paintings, and across from that a picture of a foetus at varying stages of development. Downstairs there was a piece cobbled together from corrugated card baord and chopped up pages from an atlas. There seemed to be no pattern to the presentation, nor any reasoning for putting together what they had. It's just plain weird, is what it is.
Accessibilty throughout the galleries is excellent, with lifts and numerous ramps as well as stairs to get you around. There are numerous strategically placed benches scattered around. At first glance you might wonder whythey are where they are, but take a minute to sit on them and you'll see they've been carefully placed in the optimum position for the size and location of the works on display. The curators at this place seem to favour works whose full impact you can only feel from a distance, and the benches save you the trouble of working out exactly what distance that is.
Free tours run every Saturday at 2pm but these are not always on, and sometimes the gallery attendants don't even seem to know on the day whether or not they're going ahead. I'd recommend them if you're there at the right time on a day when they are running, however, since they're generally pretty interesting, and the subjects covered change regularly. The gallery also has a regular programme of discovery events for children (which sometimes take precedence over the tours mentioned above). You can find a regularly updated description of what's on when here:
Next to serveral paintings there are 'what amazed me most today' cards that children can complete, describing or drawing why they like certain pieces best. It's a cheap and simple way to get them involved, and probably a useful distraction tool for parents who want to look round while the kids are with them.
In addition to the galleries there are a couple of lecture theatres, and a shop. This is rather small but packed full of gift and books and cards, mixing the usual art-gallery mechandise with some more bizarre children's toys, and rude postcards. The prices are steep - you can easily frittle away £5 or £10 - but they have some nice, unusual items in there, so it's worth a look.
The museum also has a café but it is not one I frequent regularly due to the prices (high) and the menu (fancy, modern junk). It has a vague eco theme to it, stocks a range of hand-made products and is the sort of place you imagine had been flogging Green and Blacks and Divine for years before the masses cottoned on. If you feel like you will need a snackette following your trip, a better idea is to take a rucksack (which they allow you to keep with you in this gallery) and pop across the road to Lidl afterwards.
Information about the gallery is readily available online, and brochures detailing upcoming exhibits and events can be collected from the central library, Picadilly station or any of a number of places around the city. The gallery also has a VERY good website that includes the obvious details on how to get there and opening times, but also has an online catalogue of all the pieces on display, meaning you can get the gist of the collections without even having to go and see them in person.
Though you could use this as a subsititue for an in-person visit I prefer to refer to it more when I get home and want to look up something I've seen, or remember the name of a particular artist. With date, country and creator details for each piece I imagine it would also be very good for students needing to do a report relating to what's on display here.
Aside from the obvious (i.e. the art) what makes a good art gallery? Is it the layout, the staff, the other visitors? Can a second-tier gallery provide as good a day out as a first-tier one? Based on my experience here I'd say no. It's not that I didn't enjoy my visit, and it's true smaller places like this can have an edge over bigger ones - I didn't spot any spelling or grammatical mistakes in the texts, for example - but something seemed to be missing. Maybe it's because their sort of art is not my favourite (I like 'proper' classical and modern pieces, the bigger the better the sort that makes me rush to the gift shop and buy a postcard to take home) or maybe it's because the layout is a bit off. Maybe it's even because I spotted a guard, possibly dead but probably just dozing, spread-eagled on a sofa in the corner of one of the rooms, or because I was one of only a half dozen visitors that afternoon, meaning the clack-clack of free-with-a-magazine flip-flops broke the silence and made people turn and look at me. Whatever the reason I like this place, but it's just not special enough for something this size, and will never, ever compete with the big boys of the higher tier.
The Whitworth Art Gallery,
Telephone (0161) 275 7450
One of the nice things about Manchester is the free places to visit, especially when its your child that wants to go. Whitworth Art Gallery is a lovely place, full of paintings, individual displays by artists, a section on how damage can be done to art pieces by light, bugs, damp etc, and how they restore them. It takes a couple of hours to look round and everything is very well displayed, and signs tell you exactly what you are looking at. There is access for wheelchair users, although I am sure they would find it hard getting to the disabled toilet through the cafe, without asking people to move tables. There is a shop where you can buy books, keepsakes etc. The only gripe I have is the Cafe. The prices are over the top at 95p for a can of Coke and £1.20 for an iced finger. The room looks like an after thought and they haven't even bothered to put any prints on the wall to make it look nice. The toilet isn't any better, with spiders crawling the walls and toilets themselves looking in need of a clean. Totally different from the gallery itself. All in all its a good place to visit, but my advice if you feel like a drink, take lots of money, or go elsewhere.