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Northern highlights

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 42, Spring 2015

Page 37

Manchester is glowing with pride thanks to the renaissance of its vibrant cultural scene, says Maria Balshaw

Mention Manchester, and people who don't know the city often envisage dour Victorian architecture and dank weather. Certainly that was the impression cast by the French-born, Manchester-based Impressionist Adolphe Valette, who found inspiration in its gloomy cityscapes and notorious rain. And by L.S. Lowry too, another local favorite, whose works – there are more than 400 – can be seen in the gallery named after him in nearby Salford.

In fact it isn't grim up north at all. Manchester and Salford have undergone an extraordinary reinvention over the past two decades, not least of their vibrant museum and gallery scene. Take the university's venerable Whitworth Art Gallery, of which I am the director, and which reopened this month. When the wealthy British toolmaker and engineer Sir Joseph Whitworth died in 1887, he left much of his fortune to the people of Manchester. A substantial part of it was used towards establishing a park and an art gallery to the south of the city center.

It's the restoration of this connection with nature, the idea that the gallery and park should be a unified experience, that has determined much of the £15 million redevelopment by McInnes Usher McKnight Architects (MUMA). Their chief intervention has been the addition of two new wings that flank the new Art Garden. This was previously an unkempt, unloved bit of the park, but now it has been transformed into a horticultural installation by Sarah Price, who co-designed the wild flower meadows in London's Olympic Park in 2012. She has planted the space with grasses and perennials to create a backdrop to the gallery's sculpture collection.

Perhaps most exciting, however, is the doubling of the exhibition space. It will host a program of contemporary shows – opening with work by, among others, Cornelia Parker, Sarah Lucas and Thomas Schütte, as well as gunpowder drawings by Cai Guo-Qiang, the New York-based Chinese artist best known for his spectacular firework displays at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The expanded space also allows the display of many more works from the Whitworth's permanent collections of historic and contemporary art. No bad thing given that it runs to 55,000 paintings, sculptures, decorative objects and wallpapers, not to mention the largest collection of textiles outside the V&A, a reflection of Manchester's pre-eminence as capital of the 19th-century textile industry, when the city was nicknamed Cottonopolis.

Back towards the center of town in Oxford Road is Manchester Museum, which houses one of the UK's most important collections of antiquities, particularly from Egypt, as well as galleries devoted to earth sciences and natural history. There's even a 7.3m-long Tyrannosaurus Rex. Like the Whitworth, it's part of the University of Manchester, which has original Victorian Gothic edifices designed by Alfred Waterhouse. He was also responsible for Manchester Town Hall, which houses murals by Ford Madox Brown and serves tea among the marble statuary of its sculpture hall.

Next door to the Town Hall, or rather to its adjacent extension, stands the Central Library, where the handsome domed reading room really is a place of echoing beauty, and which reopened this year after a £48m refurbishment. Along with the Whitworth, it's the latest Mancunian cultural institution to have been transformed since the millennium, which also saw the opening of The Lowry on Salford Quays, designed by James Stirling and Michael Wilford. Directly across the river stands IWM North, a branch of the Imperial War Museum housed in another landmark building designed by Daniel Libeskind. It opened in 2002, the year of the unveiling of a £35m extension by Hopkins Architects to link what had been known as Manchester City Art Gallery with the neighboring Athenaeum club, so creating Manchester Art Gallery.

The focus of its collections is 19th century, reflecting the solid civic architecture by Sir Charles Barry of its original home, and contains notable works by the Pre-Raphaelites. But just as its glass atrium is unmistakably 21st century, so too is its growing collection of contemporary work. An exhibition program featuring artists such as Ryan Gander, and Jeremy Deller, who has been invited to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, when a demonstration in favor of parliamentary reform resulted in hundreds of casualties.

Peterloo is also the starting point for the exhibition at the People's Museum of History, which tells the story of the Industrial Revolution and the making of modern Manchester. These subjects are also covered by the brilliant Museum of Science & Industry, (MOSI), which stands north of Castlefield, a conservation area that was once a hive of industrial activity, but is now a peaceful enclave with cobbled streets, canalside terraces, and even some Roman ruins. It is also home of the Castlefield Gallery, which supports emerging artists, as does the Cornerhouse, Manchester's international center for contemporary visual arts and independent film. Next year it will be rebranded HOME when it moves to a new £25m premises – proof that Manchester's cultural scene is buzzing with energy, creativity and promise.

Maria Balshaw is Director of the Whitworth and Manchester City Galleries.

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