Another visit to Manchester’s newly-glittering Whitworth Gallery, winner of Visit England’s gold prize for large visitor attraction 2016. On a sparkling autumn day it’s hard to imagine a more delightful place for a spot of brunch than the Café in the Trees overlooking the lovely garden and mature trees of Whitworth Park. It was busy, with more than a few foreign voices. Most were not tourists, I reckon, but residents, perhaps academics at the University that runs the gallery, or medics from the nearby hospitals. All appeared to be enjoying their bruschetta, baked beetroot, goat’s curd cheese and walnut granola (v).
The place was full of the metropolitan liberal elite – and foreigners to boot – the very folk shamed in the popular press and drubbed at the Tory conference as the root of all our nation’s ills. And the gallery was shamelessly pandering to their esoteric interests. An exhibition of the work of the Renaissance engraver Marcantonio Raimondo (c 1480 – c 1534); a ‘difficult’ multi-media show described as ‘a dialogue between the virtual realm of film and the physical world of museum artifacts’; wallpapers from the 1950s and 60s and a display that ‘reflects upon the use of the garden in visual culture as a vehicle for utopian thought …’ This was all fantastic stuff but hardly the most accessible or the most popular.
It prompted the old question: what and who are museums and galleries for? The Whitworth has had a good helping of HLF money and is working to attract broader audiences and under-represented groups with education activities and ‘social, imaginative and participatory programmes designed for all ages’. But the core audience, as far as I can see, is unmistakeably the educated metropolitan elite. Surely that is something to celebrate and not regret. The truth is that an ambitious, provincial city needs to attract and retain those people with their skills and international networks if it is going to succeed in a competitive world. Great galleries and exhibitions, the theatres, the concert halls and the universities, are part of the necessary investment in the quality of cultural life. Long may they and the Whitworth flourish. www.whitworth.manchester.ac.uk/