Two years ago, not long after I started at the gallery, all the staff of the Whitworth gathered for a whole day, along with some neighbours and stakeholders, to begin to formulate a new mission and vision for the gallery.
The day was split into two parts. In the morning we focused on what has the gallery been, its origination and its evolution from 1889 to now. The morning also included a presentation of my thinking and philosophy and the ideas that I wanted to shape the gallery in the next stage of its history. This thinking had been developed and tested over considerable time in previous situations with which I had been part – MIMA in Middlesbrough and Grizedale Arts in Cumbria – along with a growing conversation with international and institutional partners, what I would call fellow travellers, about the role of art and museums in society. These include the L’internationale museums confederation, and those involved in the Arte Útil movement – of which there will be more another day – and the work we have been doing with the Van Abbemuseum on our transformation as constituent-led museums supported by Outset Partners. Equally we cannot ignore the historical antecedents that have shaped our endeavour, such as the holistic ideology of the Bauhaus, 19th century institutes, the Settlement Movement and non-Eurocentric cultures.
Much of this contextual work focused on the decolonisation of art and culture in the broadest sense, that is a rebalancing of society not just in terms of geography and history but in terms of power and economics in general – who gets to speak, have agency and make change in their lives. This work extends to a way of working beyond the Modern era (which I would describe as 1789-1989) and finding new ways to operate in a landscape where the assertiveness of western culture and dominance of free-market capitalism is losing its grip, in the face of ecological catastrophe. In short, the new era of uncertainty.
At street level, this translates as finding new roles for art and museums that work for a wider range of people, who in turn can use art and its institutions on terms weighted in favour of shared common objectives, not prescribed from the top. What this means for art is a soft revolution, or perhaps rediscovery, of the use of art and its structures to reimagine and remake a better world.
Even more so than we began the revisioning process, the imperative for public institutions to be repurposed for social change is, for me, now unavoidable. What makes this so apt in Manchester is that both the Manchester Art Gallery and the Whitworth were created in this same spirit – as instruments to transform Manchester’s population – to educate, improve health and instil creative imagination into the economy.
In the afternoon session we turned our heads forward, to look beyond the afterglow of the new 2014 extension of the gallery and its subsequent Museum of the Year award, and ask, now we have built it, what is the Whitworth for? As a genuine civic museum (one that was created with the purpose of contributing to the growth of the civitas, in one of the oldest capitals of capitalism) what is our purpose.
The collective responses were consolidated, categorized and condensed into a mission statement that spoke to all of our histories and all of our futures:
The Whitworth, part of the University of Manchester, is an art institute and park made collectively by the activity of all its users, including those working, studying and volunteering here. Originally founded in 1889 in memory of the pioneering engineer Sir Joseph Whitworth, it was built for “the perpetual gratification of the people of Manchester”. We continue to use art and our collections for social change, connecting the University and the people of the city, providing a place to meet, learn and engage in productive play.
Our work is driven by three principles:
1: To make art useful to society
2: Learning through making and doing
3: Creating a house and garden for the city
1: To make art useful
Art is everywhere, and for everyone. Our purpose has always been to provide a stimulus for a creative and productive way of life through artistic education. Our ambition is to transform the way that art is seen and used. It should address what matters in people’s lives, respond to current urgencies and propose solutions to problems in the world.
Art is a tool for social change.
2: Learning through making and doing
The Whitworth seeks to create a participatory democracy across the city.
Through exhibitions, public projects, research, teaching and collaborations we serve as a workshop for experimentation and learning, generating and testing new forms of knowledge. We encourage new ways of living with attitude, opinions and spirit to operate as a centre of social making. The Whitworth is an activist.
3: A house and garden for the city
The Whitworth is for everyone – a place to come together and find refuge within busy lives, to share ideas and plan the future. The Whitworth doesn’t see art as separate from everyday life. It embraces the complexities and interconnectedness of the world. The programme is driven organically and ethically, responding to the conditions around us: gathering, nurturing, producing and re-investing to ensure a sustainable and considerate way of life. The Whitworth cares.
This aspect of care is fundamental to the Whitworth as it translates in multiple ways and connects with the fundamental role of care in the curatorial sense and the pastoral sense (curare = to care). We can expand this idea of care in terms of our motivations – care of people, of things, of relationships and worldly concerns such as environment and the economy – and also in terms of what and how we deliver – programmes in healthcare, education, the park and gardens, political and social projects.
These are complex things of course and not always an easy mouthful, or headful, so to visualise these interrelationships, we have presented them in a diagram, derived from the holistic curriculum of the Bauhaus that shows the programme in full and relates it to our centre, with people at its heart. The circular plan was redrawn by Modern Designers, who are currently working on a refresh of the Whitworth brand.
Not entirely by chance, this schematic maps directly onto the vision of the University as a whole, with Discovery, Learning and Teaching and Social Responsibility as its principle drivers.
The COVID-19 lockdown period has certainly provided food for thought and time for consideration and when we re-open again we will be able to move forward with a strong philosophy and vision shaping what we do and how we do it.
Future posts will revisit and expand on these themes and in the next I will layout the vision for Manchester Art Gallery.