The Whitworth welcomed visitors to the newly transformed gallery this February following a £15 million transformation of the gallery by the architects at MUMA (McInnes Usher McKnight Architects). Created in 1889 as the first English gallery in the park, their new vision aims to make the most of the building and the park by bringing the outside in and redefining its role in the local community. It will be a space where international artists can exhibit on a grand scale. ‘A Gathering of Strangers’ is their new motto. Does it achieve these goals in terms of the building and the artists?

The Building
Over the past 126 years, the gallery, founded in memory of the industrialist Sir Joseph Whitworth, has continually expanded. Built late in the 19th century, its first major renovation came in the 1960s. Architects Bickerdike, Allen and Partners transformed the Edwardian building with a bold and open plan design, ideal for showcasing fashionable artists of the time, including David Hockney and his larger scale paintings. 1995 saw another extension, the RIBA Sculpture Court, but an increase in the number of visitors meant the gallery was just running out of space. A plan was drawn up, with gallery director Dr Maria Balshaw at the helm, and funding was secured from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the University of Manchester, Arts Council England and others. Then in September 2012 the gallery closed its doors to the public to begin their most ambitious renovation to date.

The result is stunning. This latest leg is all about the landscape and focuses on the gallery from every angle, utilising interior and exterior to full capacity. From the front, the Whitworth looks unchanged on the whole, with its grand domed entrance remaining. But the long, dark gallery is now bathed in natural light and the connection with Whitworth Park is seamless. An elegant glass, stainless steel and brick extension sees two wings extended into the park from the back of the existing 19th century building. The public space has been doubled, yet somehow you really don’t notice the changes. It’s like they’ve always been there with new state-of-the-art facilities. The café in the trees is particularly effective in reflecting the park’s setting, and the newly landscaped art garden, designed by Chelsea gold medallist Sarah Price, really does bring the gallery outside, and vice versa.

The Artists
Whitworth Art Gallery has been home to internationally renowned collections of 60s modern art, textiles, watercolours, prints, portraits, wallpaper and sculpture for many years. This re-launch sees new exhibitions, including a major solo exhibition from British contemporary artist Cornelia Parker, an entire room of etchings by German print artist Thomas Schütte, Cai Guo-Qiang’s larger-than-life gunpowder landscape Unmanned Nature, which is being shown for the first time outside of Japan, and Johnnie Shand Kydd’s avenue of photographs in the North Promenade, all displayed alongside these collections. Very impressive.

The three barrel-vaulted 19th century gallery ceilings have been perfectly restored, enabling the display of these major, large-scale pieces, and in particular Cornelia Parker’s sculpture comes alive in this setting. Her work transforms ordinary objects into the compelling and the extraordinary. Her most famous piece, Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View, creates the effect of a blown-up garden shed, displaying arrested, flying debris reminiscent of the Big Bang. It is simply the most amazing piece of three-dimensional sculpture I have ever seen. Unique to Whitworth is War Room, a tribute to men lost at war. Punched out paper negatives of poppies fill the entire room to leave an oppressive and overwhelming red womb-like room, whilst at the same time conjuring up eerie 40s dancehalls with the music of yesteryear. The exhibition runs to 31 May and I can’t recommend it enough.

The beautifully restored Grand Hall

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The Whitworth has truly moved into the 21 century, managing to retain the best of the original building, whilst giving us an entirely new and better gallery. The increased size means that the space is open to more people than ever before, and this inspirational new gallery will draw visitors and artists from all over the world and our city. It has been a landmark project for Manchester.

This is the real deal, the power of a gallery to bring us, the Gathering of Strangers, together.

Background and gallery photos by YGR Erskine.

YGR Erskine