Maria Balshaw will need to approve that you worked on “Reimagining the museum: Maria Balshaw on making museums a social space” before we add you as a collaborator.
“It’s the culmination of a ten year programme of becoming a different kind of museum, and finding new and ever-more innovative ways of connecting to audiences that might think galleries are not for them,”
she says. “In particular, for us, really changing the relationship we have with the park around us [the Whitworth is situated at the University of Manchester and then the communities that live on our near-borders. It’s the most diverse part of Manchester, and it’s also a part of the city that has the most acute social and economic challenges.
“The physical transformation of the building was driven by a central idea which was we want to make our collection, our exhibitions and our building porous to the people around us.... so physically you can see into the building now.”
“Tourists visiting the city and local people actually want the same thing, which is curious, amazing, tremendous art, and that is what we are focused on... But we operate all the time with a strong sense of our international audience. Manchester Airport is only 20 minutes from the gallery, and we’ve got routes into South Asia and the Far East and China and America and we programme with that in mind.”
“We think really hard about how can speak quite directly to the international destinations that are priorities for Manchester,” says Balshaw. Recently the Whitworth has received funding alongside the Liverpool Biennial and the Tetley in Leeds to partner with five art organisations and events across South Asia to develop “a programme of new commissions, sharing exhibitions, sharing expertise”. “It’s a part of the world that we’ve had connections with for centuries,” says Balshaw. “12% of the population in Greater Manchester is South Asian.”
“Quite a long time ago in the city, not just for museums but across art forms, we got to a place – with most people, not with absolutely everybody – where you can say that if we do something really good and have a huge success, this does not steal success from you. In fact, it’s more likely to bring extra people to you as well. Even the Arts Council has noticed this.”
“You have to go through the process of bringing everyone to a point where they know what the change is, they understand what it’s going to take, and they are willing to accept that. I’ve got, in both galleries, really, really fantastic staff, who have been on a long, and sometimes very, very difficult journey. But I’m immensely proud of what they’ve achieved.”
“You need a lot of people to make the organisations work well, so why wouldn’t you invest in developing them? We have organisational structures that are very different from those which might have existed ten or 20 years ago, and we’ve made lots more changes to deal with the reduction of public funding for the galleries, but it doesn’t mean we haven’t invested in people and their expertise.“We’ve protected curatorial knowledge. But our curators are the people who think in public – they’re not hidden away. Because actually what our visitors tell us is that the thing they love more than anything else is that sense of knowing what a curator thinks, and we want to share their knowledge.”