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A Short History of The Whitworth Art Gallery

gallery exterior detail

a landmark of Manchester's cultural landscape

Throughout its history, The Whitworth Art Gallery has aimed to be a great gallery in a great city.  It was founded in 1889, as The Whitworth Institute and Park, during the heroic period of Victorian philanthropy, and was originally a voluntary cultural, educational and technical institution marking the memory of one of the North West's great industrialists, Sir Joseph Whitworth.  The building and its park were sited in the southern suburbs of Manchester, which, as the world's first industrial city, was intent on establishing important cultural institutions to match its pre-eminent international status.  The Whitworth became a leading cultural player in the city, supported by around sixty eminent Mancunians as Governors of the Institute, including C. P. Scott, the editor of the Manchester Guardian.  The Gallery was also in close proximity to another leading cultural institution, Owens College, which would later become The Victoria University of Manchester in 1905.

From the start, and in common with The University of Manchester then and now, The Whitworth's perspective has been international.  The Whitworth's founders drew inspiration from contemporary museums and galleries in Continental Europe for their conception of what an art gallery could be, and from the start had ambitions for The Whitworth to house collections of international importance.  By the time the first building was completed in 1908, with its strong influence from the Arts and Crafts movement, The Whitworth had become an important forum for the arts, humanities and technology, and a centre of excellence for research and learning, having assembled and consolidated two of the world's great collections: British watercolours and drawings, and world textiles.  In the early decades of the twentieth century, collections of prints and modern art were also established, which grew over the following decades to be of national significance.  To accompany this growth of collections, a public programme of displays, exhibitions, lectures and events was also established.

The Whitworth's already close ties with The University of Manchester were formalised in 1958 when the responsibility for caring for the Gallery and its collections was transferred to University trusteeship.  The late 1950s and early 1960s was a period of unprecedented growth in higher education in Britain, and The University of Manchester recognised the value of the Whitworth as a cultural asset that would contribute to its ambitious programme of expansion and help to attract new generations of British and overseas students and staff to Manchester.  The University invested heavily in The Whitworth during this period, working closely with Gallery staff to modernise much of the building and expand the modern and contemporary collections of fine art.  The Gallery's holdings of interior design were also augmented at this time by the acquisition of an internationally significant collection of wallpapers.  By the mid-1960s, the refurbished Whitworth, with a new open-plan interior designed by Bickerdike, Allen and Partners and inspired by contemporary Scandinavian gallery architecture, had acquired a reputation in the national and international press as "The Tate of the North".  In a parallel development, the new relationship with The Whitworth led to the endowment of a new chair of the History of Art in The University of Manchester, and the first two post-holders went on to become Honorary Directors of the Gallery.

During the 1970s The Whitworth Art Gallery developed an expanded and internationally significant programme of temporary exhibitions that continues to the present day.  Public access to the riches of the stored collections was also radically improved at this time by the creation of Study Rooms for Fine Art, Textiles and Wallpapers in 1976.  All these developments were funded by the Greater Manchester Council, which recognised and supported the wider public role of the Gallery in the Northwest region.

Since the 1980s The Whitworth has reached out to a wider and more diverse community with education and events programmes to enhance public access and engagement with its collections and exhibitions.  The Gallery's Education Department established the first post-16 unit in a UK gallery and its work is widely acknowledged as delivering best practice for Widening Participation in Higher Education.  The Whitworth was the first UK gallery to have its collections accessible on-line in a comprehensive database, and is still at the forefront of digital access to stored collections: in 2005 over 90% of the collection is on-line. The first phase of a comprehensive building development plan to enable The Whitworth to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century was completed in 1995, with the opening of a new RIBA award-winning Sculpture Court, designed by Ahrends, Burton and Koralek.  Currently, The Whitworth Art Gallery is making a distinctive contribution as a university gallery (alongside the Manchester Museum, The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford) to Renaissance in the Regions - a national initiative designed to promote best practice in the museums and galleries sector and to provide regional leadership.   

The Whitworth has contributed significantly to the work of both The Victoria University of Manchester and the new University of Manchester established in 2004.  The Gallery has a particularly well-developed link with the Centre for Museology in the School of Arts, Histories and Cultures, and is currently hosting a series of exhibitions linked to teaching; The Whitworth is a venue for exhibitions researched by members of the University's academic staff; and it is a frequent generator and host of conferences and programmes of lectures and events.  The Whitworth Art Gallery's own history and ambition, and its relationship with The University of Manchester combine to point the way forward over the next ten years to 2015.  The task is to fully realise the public and academic potential of The Whitworth Art Gallery as one of the world's premier university art galleries.

mezzanine court showing the exhibition Indigo, 2007
RIBA award-winning sculpture court, designed by Ahrends, Burton and Koralek, displaying works from the exhibition Indigo, 2007