Last week, we set out the Whitworth’s plan to foreground our ongoing work to operate as an anti-racist institution. On Monday, we had an all-staff meeting to listen to the many voices in the gallery team and discuss ways to accelerate our work towards implementing the changes to policies and programming that are required for embedded and sustained change. Together, we identified staffing, education, staff-training, the Collections Development Policy and the programme as key areas of focus.
This week we are sharing some resources that we have found useful. This is not an exhaustive list of everything that we are reading, as we are aware that there are many resources being shared at the moment. These are a selection of those that we feel are particularly relevant to an art gallery in Manchester, now.
Eddie Chambers, Black Artists in British Art since 1950. 2014
Eddie Chambers, Things done change: the cultural politics of recent Black artists in Britain. 2011
Lubaina Himid in conversation, A post-slavery reading of cotton, Jessica Hemmings (ed.), Cultural Threads. 2015
Sophie Orlando, British Black Art: Debates on the Western Art History. 2016
David Bailey, Ian Baucom and Sonia Boyce (eds), Shades of Black: Assembling Black arts in 1980s Britain. 2005
Gus John, Moss Side 1981: More than Just a Riot. 2011
Iniva reading list: Iniva (Institute of International Visual Arts) is an evolving, radical visual arts organisation dedicated to developing an artistic programme that reflects on the social and political impact of globalisation.
Last week the Whitworth issued messages of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. As a public art gallery it felt vital to demonstrate solidarity with anti-racist protests happening around the world. Quite rightly, these symbolic statements were called out on social media for lack of commitment to practical action.
Through our exhibitions, staff training, health programmes, public projects, policies and partnerships we have been working to actively challenge established narratives and denounce the racist rhetoric that has no place in our society. This hasn’t been enough – we need to do more, and faster.
In a staff meeting on Monday we discussed this call for action and agreed that we need to make the serious and considered response this urgency demands. This will have to happen in a deep and sustained way and be done collectively and in co-operation – it needs to be an open conversation.
In some also ways this is a good moment to reboot, during lockdown, to reflect deeply and look at how we might do better, what we might do to improve in our working practices and programmes so that when we re-open we have a clearer pathway to being a gallery that works for the widest number of people in the most meaningful and positive ways. This will be a longer process that we can only start from here, but we have a plan for making this happen.
This week we are pausing our social media output to take time to think, listen and reflect.
From 15 June we will hold an all-staff session to listen to the many voices in the gallery and use social media to share the resources and tools that will help us in this process.
From 22 June we will continue our internal meetings and conversations and begin an open and discursive conversation online followed by an announcement for the following week of an online public programme.
From 29 June we will hold a week of public conversations, listening to criticism, inviting suggestions, connecting across all our work with open zooms, podcasts, and working on our family resources, policies, content, age friendly work, health and social projects.
At the end of this period, and in the months to come, we will build on this work with concrete actions that demonstrate our commitment to being actively anti-racist. In doing this work, we will be reaching out to other cultural organisations to support real change across the sector.
Around the world people are demonstrating their outrage at the killing of George Floyd and with other cultural institutions we join in condemning racist oppression and violence. Like millions of others we have taken to social media, to observe #blackouttuesday, to take time to think about our position and to participate in providing a space for the amplification of black voices.
Deeds not words
As civic and public art institutions founded in the nineteenth century we need to do this with care and consideration. Our roots, and those of our city, are entangled with colonialism and capitalism, our prosperity built on manufacture, trade and empire – and this resonates today. We understand that it is critical to acknowledge and address structural racism, and show solidarity with local and global communities that are subject to racial inequality and discrimination. Yet we also know that actions speak louder than words – we must make practical and tangible contributions to change.
So what can an art museum do in this respect, beyond the symbolic?
Speaking up and speaking out
Both the Whitworth and Manchester Art Gallery have been working to decolonise and de-modernise the narrative of our collections and exhibitions. Recently, we have been inviting and supporting a wide range of constituents to use the museum to speak up and out to others and to provide space for a multitude of voices and experiences. Exhibitions such as Beyond Faith, Bodies of Colour, Four Corners of One Cloth and The Reno at the Whitworth; Speech Acts, Waqas Khan, Sonia Boyce and our new project with Jade Montserrat and INIVA at the Manchester Art Gallery are some examples of how we are trying to be part of the conversation and actively contribute to change.
We have also been updating our collecting policies – in our collecting today, we are working to rectify the historic imbalance between white male artists and other artists who have been side-lined. We want to collect art that is representative of all our communities, and this means continually educating ourselves and listening to a diversity of voices.
Getting together and getting things done
Museums have a great convening power, to bring people together to share, exchange and create positive forms of culture and connecting, but beyond this we also need action. This work is wider-ranging but as a whole starts to build a head of steam that does more than create cultural capital for institutions. It starts to shift policy and practice in the wider world. This is operational stuff; creating a new curriculum for schools across the city that works for everyone; working with artists such as Suzanne Lacy and Imran Peretta to give voice and agency to youth; offering up the gallery spaces for groups to use for their own ends and means; changing policy in employment and access; supporting political and activist art internationally; working with our colleagues in the University and third sector to address health inequality amongst ethnic minority communities. A School of Integration.
There is a long way to go, but I hope that through collective action not just our museums will be transformed, but that the world on our doorstep will be as well.
Alistair Hudson, Director, the Whitworth and Manchester Art Gallery
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.
A conversation, from a year ago and a very different world, with Emerita Professor Helen Rees Leahy. Looking at the history, differences and similarities of Manchester Art Gallery and the Whitworth. Exploring their mission, vision and purpose
For more, and very timely, reading from the Institute of Cultural Practices – Cultural Access and the ‘New Normal’in which Helen Rees Leahy discusses the politics and provision of cultural access during and after the Coronavirus lockdown. Her focus is on museums in the UK and the challenges they face in ensuring and expanding equitable access in a society that is both united by the experience of the pandemic and also divided by inequalities of health, space, time and wealth.
I will discuss the new visions for the Whitworth and Manchester Art Galleries in future posts shortly, but as an extended introduction, this is a lecture I gave at the National Gallery last September at the conference Art for the Nation: John Ruskin, Art Education and Social Change in the bicentenary of Ruskin’s birth. It sets our clear (now more vital) themes that will be addressed by the gallery in the future, such as education, politics, economy, making, ecology, health and so on.
Earlier that year we held the exhibition Joy For Ever at the Whitworth, with input from colleagues at Manchester Art Gallery and The University of Manchester , from which this lecture is derived. The exhibition was conceived as an overture to the future programme and mission of the galleries, paving the way for an increasingly socially oriented way of working.
The lecture takes as its starting point the wall texts from the show itself, which was a kind of Ruskin sermon gone wrong, a parable of what happens when art gets mixed up with the messiness of the world. I have recently rewritten the transcript of this lecture into a longer form essay which will be published online at the beginning of June through our friends at the Guild of St George and the National Gallery.
The Whitworth, part of the University of Manchester, and Manchester Art Gallery, part of Manchester City Council, are old institutions. That is, relatively old institutions, when we consider the recent history of modern art or the advent of the modern city. Both galleries were formed as educational and social institutes in the 19th Century as Manchester grew as the first city of capitalism and industrialisation. Alongside the Manchester Museum, these three form the Manchester Museums Partnership and work together in a mutual programme of work to improve and enhance the city and wider world. In this respect they are genuinely civic museums, in that they are not just part of Manchester’s city structure, but have actively contributed and supported its growth. When the Mosely Street building of the Royal Manchester Institution, now Manchester Art Gallery, was first built in 1823 you would have been able to see fields from its portico steps. The merchants and manufacturers knew then, that culture was fundamental to a generative economy.
One criticism of the ‘civic’ as an idea is that it is an idea rooted in capitalism. But Manchester is a capitalist city, the first capitalist city documented so famously by Marx and Engels, and our three museums have been complicit and instrumental in its growth. They are inextricably tied to the forces that shaped this city of laissez-faire economics, part good and part bad and that’s the reality.
Both galleries were founded as educational Institutes, primarily for the ‘betterment’ of the working classes, to generate knowledge, creativity, ingenuity, and a healthy and productive society. They were clearly instrumental yet despite this, the Institutes of the 1900’s also provided the arena for people to get educated, convene, socialise and self-organise, providing platforms for unions and co-operatives, or challenges to power and conservative thinking.
The potential for museums and galleries as free public spaces to be used by people for positive social gain and influence societal thinking is more appropriate now then ever. The following texts will revisit past and parallel thinking and draw upon colleagues in other like-minded institutions, fellow travellers in the application of artistic strategies across all fields of human activity.
These pages are launched in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic, with the world in lock-down and the doors of our institutions closed. This is a crisis that has its roots in globalisation, economics and ecological mismanagement. It is therefore a time for reflection and to reconsider what we do and how we do it. The imperatives we set out to address in our mission and vision before COVID-19 are only accentuated and rendered more pertinent than ever: health, inequality, justice, economics, education and ecology. The need to create better operating systems for the way we live and to do this with care, empathy and humanity is urgent business. For my mind this is what culture is – and our public cultural institutions will have to play a leading role in the re-socialising, re-imagining, reconstructing and re-beautifying of the world going forward.