Jonna Strandberg:

My Three Months with Withworth Art Museum


My Mobius fellowship at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester took place, while Kiasma, my home institution in Helsinki, was closed for renovation. As a funny co-incidence, the Whitworth, which is part of the University of Manchester, was also closed during my stay for a major construction project, through which they were doubling their size of their building and programme. Meanwhile, they were also re-thinking the whole concept of the museum, to make it more attractive for visitors. For me it was very interesting to get to work with the people in the Whitworth in the middle of all the renovations they were facing, and to learn from the optimistic views of the future of the museum they had. The forward-looking attitude was common in Manchester’s cultural scene in general. The post-industrial city was investing a lot in art institutions, and seemed to appreciate their positive impact on economy and social life. In this article, I will first take you through my experiences at the unique Whitworth Art Gallery, after which I will continue by offering a broader view on the Northern England’s cultural scene, specifically from Manchester’s perspective.

The Whitworth Experience

From the first day at Whitworth my colleague Alex Rinsler made clear the Museum’s expectations of me, but he was also willing to listen to my own wishes. My main task during my fellowship was helping him and the head of the marketing, Tim Manley, to plan and produce the upcoming re-opening of the Whitworth. The programme was almost fully curated and waiting for production plans when I started. I was happy with the task, because even though for the last three years I have been working mostly on curating performing arts, I have never been far from the production work either. Working in the re-opening team was a perfect chance for me also because through my work I got to know the whole organization, as everybody was somehow involved in the re-opening. It also meant that I also got to work with artists.

The other task I had was consulting the members of the learning team who were working on their new project, Whitworth Young Contemporaries. They had around 40 young volunteers co-operating with three young artists who were hired for this project. With them I shared the experiences I had gained by working with young adults at Kiasma (at the URB festival, and in “Heimo” and “Kultu” projects), and all the good and bad we had confronted in those projects.

Besides these two main tasks, I met a wide range of cultural professionals within the Whitworth. It was interesting to hear about the funding system and learning programmes, which both were impressive and massive compared to what we have in Kiasma, or in Finland at large. In the funding department there were three people working full-time for three museums (Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester Museum and Whitworth Art Gallery), soliciting foundations, patrons of art, and sponsors for funds. This kind of well-organised fundraising system was quite a new thing for the Manchester museums, but during the few years they had been organising it, the funding had been multiplied.

Whitworth Learning team was big (around 30 people) and the work they did for activating people, and their collaboration with universities was impressive as well. I was fascinated by their volunteers’ programmes, which gather hundreds of people to work for events, collections and the Whitworth park. The volunteer team for the re-opening had already a hundred people in it. The initiative they announced just before I left was also quite charming: they were hiring a Cultural Park Keeper to work in the park outside the museum. The idea was to emphasize the meaning of the museum for the park ideology, which I think is smart in a city where green areas do not practically exist, except for few small parks.

In addition to the already mentioned aspects, I also appreciated the work that the curators were doing at the Museum. The re-opening programme will include six different exhibitions, and such internationally renown names as Chinese Cai Guong-Ciang and Thomas Schütte will be presented alongside locally well-known artists like Cornelia Parker and Johnie Shand Kydd. Also the Whitworth park will have many art works installed before the re-opening.

In addition, I would like to give my respects to the marketing department that reshaped the Whitworth’s image into one that is extremely contemporary, clean and elegant. In their work, they have cherished the history of the Museum, but they are also heading towards the future. The new Brand Bible for the museum had a convincing 39 pages when I left, and it was not ready yet. From the Brand Bible everyone can find detailed introductions about how to use the brand, what the Whitworth’s “tone of voice” is, and the (hi)story behind it all. Here is a telling example from the Whitworth web page:

“The Whitworth reopens on 14 February 2015. Please bear with us while we get your new gallery (and website) ready.” I simply love the way they talk about “your new gallery” instead of just talking about the gallery. This nice participatory and audience-involving way of putting things into words is in the heart of the Whitworth strategy. The idea of doing things together (not only among with themselves but also with audiences), and the notion that the museum is simply there for serving the people helps to have volunteers to work with them, for sure.

The Manchester Experience

Manchester being the first industrial city of the world (as Mancunians put it), it has now become a post-industrial city, where the industrial basis of economics is no longer there. Nowadays Manchester’s aim is to be the cultural capital of Northern England. The city and the government are investing heavily in cultural institutions. Besides the on-going Whitworth’s extension, a new contemporary art center HOME is in the final phase of its construction. HOME is the biggest public building project in the British cultural scene since London’s Barbican in the 1970’s. Referring to the Ekosgen research of the impact of Manchester’s cultural organizations, one can easily find many positive reasons why to allocate public investments into the arts and culture. In the context of 16 cultural institutions in Manchester, the research is showing the total employment impact of 2,152 FPES, total GVA impacts of 86,93M GBP, and 81M GBP of additional expenditure through tourists’ visits. Ekosgen research is an excellent example of how to re-think the cost and income of the cultural institutions, and how they are not just spenders of public money but instead ameliorating the economical situation. This kind of thinking is certainly one reason why the museums in the UK can have free entrances, and why there exist widely positive attitudes toward art institutions.

These researches and tools would be vitally important and interesting also in the context of Finnish economical, social and cultural scene, where the attitudes easily turn into thinking of culture and art only as a sector of public spending.