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Why We Were Nominated

From art in pubs to a meteorite shower from Cornelia Parker, we explain our nomination.

The Art Fund Museum of the Year 2015: Why we were nominated

From art in pubs to a meteorite shower from Cornelia Parker, we explain our nomination.

During 2014 the Whitworth was closed, undergoing the largest transformation in its history. But while the builders were on site we kept the gallery “open”. How? By running activities across Manchester – events that took the Whitworth into new places and spaces, and introduced its collections to new audiences.

For the first time, for example, we displayed some of our best loved artworks at Selfridges. During the Festival of Imagination, works by Picasso, Lucien Freud, Jacob Epstein and others sat among the handbags and the glad rags of the Exchange Square store, bringing a taste of the gallery’s collection to hundreds of thousands of city centre shoppers. It was followed by a series of in-store talks from some of the people we regularly work with, among them Jeanette Winterson, Maxine Peake, Jeremy Deller, Mary Anne Hobbs, Richard Wentworth and Dave Haslam.

We were part of the city’s Student Weekender, too, and popped up at the Student Social at Manchester Museum. We hosted the Whitworth Welcome in the Park during Fresher’s Week – and our work with students continues, as a new group of student volunteers are developing their own programme of events within the gallery. Elsewhere, we ran workshops at the Moss Side ASDA, a “pub crawl” in some of the city’s best traditional pubs, and developed an adult education programme with the WEA. We took the gallery into concert halls, residential care homes and hospitals, developed programmes for people living with dementia and staged a live music night in Salford’s First Chop Brewery. The Whitworth Young Contemporaries (young people aged 15-25; part of the nationwide Circuit programme) worked with 26 different artists at locations ranging from skate parks and youth centres to pupil referral units and youth charities. In all, we worked with almost 7,000 people at over thirty locations.

Behind the scenes, our curators launched an online collections database, and the acclaimed British artist, Cornelia Parker, developed a project with the Nobel Prize-winner, Kostya Novoselov, one of the scientists who discovered graphene. The pair developed the first cultural use of graphene, triggering a meteorite shower over the Whitworth Park; it was a work that’s typical of the new Whitworth, a university gallery whose collections, location and partnerships generate the sort of collaborations that could only happen here in Manchester.

The 135 volunteers we recruited and trained during 2014 were invaluable over our opening weekend – when some 25,000 people alone came through our doors. Our volunteer art gardeners work with our new Cultural Park Keeper, a person whose job it is to bring nature, culture and people together, and our visitors have since been enjoying everything from welly walks and health walks in the park to a “lads and dads” outdoor art club.  

So, while the new Whitworth was taking shape, so too were our ideas for what we could do with the new building and outside spaces. Since we reopened, then, we have hosted events as part of the Wellcome Trust’s Sexology Season, the BBC’s Little Painting Challenge and Selfridges’ Bright Old Things talks series. Cornelia Parker has given a sold-out lecture and has been announced as an Honorary Professor at the University of Manchester. Taking our Textiles exhibition as inspiration, fashion designer Katherine Hamnett has debated ethical clothing, and visitors have learned how to “upcycle” their clothes. We’ve had yoga every Thursday morning in a gallery overlooking the park, there have been creative sessions for babies and toddlers and art workshops run with Age Friendly Manchester. Our Grand Hall has been the setting for live music gigs – from hip-hop and folk to classical – as well as the first ever industry event from the Creative Industries Federation. And all this alongside the ten, free exhibitions we opened with, our new art garden and sculpture terrace, and new artworks and events out in the Whitworth Park.

But the Whitworth is not just about art and ideas. It’s about art and people. Keeping the Whitworth “open” while we were closed was done with one aim in mind: to introduce what we do to more people than ever before. With over 150,000 people visiting us in our first ten weeks, we feel as if we have succeeded in that aim.