The Influencers: Maria Balshaw, Director of the Whitworth

The Influencers: Maria Balshaw, Director of the Whitworth Maria Balshaw. Photo by Johnnie Shand Kydd.

We talk to Maria Balshaw, director of the newly expanded Whitworth Art Gallery, about the dramatic transformation of a much-loved institution

Sheila McGregor: We’re all very excited about the Whitworth re-opening. What has changed?

Maria Balshaw: The gallery has been reconnected to the park around us, and it has been opened up to light and to people. That was our aspiration. In practical terms this means we have expanded the building by a third, creating two new wings that extend out into the park, creating an art garden between them.

The new wings are linked by a beautiful translucent promenade that wraps the back of the old building. In these new areas we have a new landscape gallery, a study centre, a new café that sits in the tree canopy and a learning studio for young people.

We’ve also transformed the existing building. We’ve retained the best of the old – the formal Victorian front entrance, the low ceilinged 1960s galleries that are great for showing our collection. The main exhibition galleries are unrecognisable though, as we’ve stripped out air conditioning systems and restored the glorious barrel-ceiling spaces.

This is where Cornelia Parker is making her show. We’ve also created new environmentally sustainable collections stores in our former basements, and a Collection Centre where people can work with the collection. Finally, we’ve restored the original Grand Hall at the front of the building – it had been divided into staff offices – and created a sculpture terrace, so you can see the art from the road outside.

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The Whitworth re-development. Photography by Alan Williams

SM: You’ve done some bold things in recent years, notably clearing out the gallery to make way for a Marina Abramović project in 2009. What’s coming up in your future programme?

MB: Well, the opening programme of Cornelia Parker, Cai Guo-Qiang, Sarah Lucas, Thomas Schütte and the riches of our collection feels pretty special. In the future we will exploit the opportunities the new spaces offer us. So in summer 2015 we’re using the three main exhibition galleries to show 40 years of Chinese Contemporary Art from the Sigg Collection, working in partnership with the new M+ Museum in Hong Kong.

We’ll also be doing shows with Bedwyr Williams, Richard Forster, Martin Boyce and Nico Vascellari. We’re also doing a very political show of feminist and socially engaged textile work with artists from across the globe, echoing the Whitworth’s world textiles collection. We’re working with Artangel again to co-commission a new moving image work by Ben Rivers. And we’ll be working with our friends from Manchester International Festival again, but that’s under wraps for now.

Sarah Lucas

Sarah Lucas's exhibition, The Whitworth. Photographer David Levene.

SM: Collections are rarely centre stage. Do you think our civic leaders fully understand their value and potential?

MB: They do in Manchester. The collections are absolutely central to the vision for the new Whitworth. Opening up the collections to regular visitors, instead of just scholars, has been one of the most important aspects of the redevelopment. I’m proud to say that our Leader of the Council Richard Leese knows the collections well enough to have personal favourites, and works he doesn’t like (nothing can persuade him about the Pre-Raphaelites).

SM: The Whitworth has a wonderful collection. Any personal highlights?

MB: That is like trying to pick a favourite child. I can only say that today I was stopped in my tracks by a recent acquisition by Laure Prouvost – which you can see when we open – and also by a delicate portrait of Derek Jarman called The Gardener by Michael Clark. Tomorrow it will be something else.

SM: How do you see the gallery’s role in relation to Manchester’s large community of practising artists?

MB: We collect work by artists here and we show them when they reach that point where our spaces are right for their work. In recent times we’ve had great adventures and made fantastic shows with Ian Rawlinson and Nick Crowe and Pavel Büchler. You’ll see a new Rachel Goodyear work in one of the new displays. It’s an on-going generative relationship with artists who make Manchester their home.

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The Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. Photographer David Levene.

SM: You also have overall responsibility for Manchester City Galleries. What are the advantages and challenges of this dual role?

MB: Well, I’m very busy! But the real advantage is being able to plan so we are always playing to each gallery’s strengths. It also gives us the ability to see things from the point of view of a visitor or person living in Manchester – what would they want to see if they had a day to go the Whitworth and the Manchester Art Gallery? We are able to share collections much more easily and we get to combine forces to do things that are bigger than either could do alone.

SM: How did you get into running museums and galleries?

MB: Not through a conventional route. I was a Cultural Studies academic, and took a leap into arts and education, working as Director of Creative Partnerships in Birmingham. I did the Clore Leadership Programme, which had a profound impact on me, and following that I was headhunted for the Director role at the Whitworth. Given it is a university art gallery, it connected me back to where I began.

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The Whitworth re-development, Architecture Images, Photography by Alan Williams.

SM: Congratulations on making it through a big capital project! What is your advice to anyone about to embark on one?

You need a great deal of stamina and determination, and a very thick skin. Working on the brief with your own team and making sure you really know what you need before you even engage architects is critical. Hiring great architects who want to listen and collaborate is the next important thing.

Finding a mentor who has done capital projects before saved my sanity many times – huge thanks to Tom Bloxham, Chairman of Urban Splash. I have learnt a lot of new words (and not all of them expletives) – ‘thermal mass’, ‘brise soleil’, ‘mullions’. Get a project manager who does translation for you – knowledge is power.

Finally, learn to really read plans. The devil really is in the detail, and it is upsetting (and expensive) to find that you have inadvertently agreed to a building sensor exactly where you want to hang a painting.

Find out more about the Whitworth >

Interview by Sheila McGregor
February 2015

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Read our previous interviews in our The Influencers series:

Andrew Brewerton, Principal & Chief Executive, Plymouth College of Art >

Sarah Rowles, Director of Q-Art >

Tony Charles, Director of Platform A in Middlesbrough >

Karen MacKinnon, Director and Curator of Artes Mundi >