Art Yesterday, I finally managed to see the Whitworth gallery in Manchester for the first time since it reopened following a refurbishment and building of an new extension, all of which has been awarded Building of the Year by RIBA. Having rather loved the old place I was concerned that all its 60s wood panel and stone and modernist intentions and nooks and crannies had been swept away but I'm pleased to see that the architects at MUMA have simply built upon, what the introductory booklet rightly describes as "Scandinavian-style spaces" by Bickerdale, Allen and Partners. The new large atrium cafe sits within and overlooks on ancient trees and opens out into Whitworth Park in a way which feels both urban and pastoral. As I sat eating a cheese bap, I felt that any time I wasn't looking out of the window was being wasted, especially on a day with such changeable weather.
Unfortunately, the display of the Whitworth's other key draw, its permanent collection, which is arguably of national, if not international importance is nothing short of catastrophic. The notion, as tends to be the vogue for smaller galleries, is to present the works in a series of shorter exhibitions around themes, rather than simply have everything on show, all of the time. This is not something I necessarily disagree with, since it allows for a wider selection of the work to find wall space and also has the added benefit of generating repeat visits from an audience who might otherwise stay away having assumed that they'd already seen what was there. At the moment the themes are acquisitions from the 1960s, Watercolours, Green textiles, New Acquisitions and Portraits.
Except the way they're displayed is dismal and abysmal. In all cases, the policy seems to be to get as much out there as possible and so the works have often been splattered across the walls without any apparent notion of how they'll be viewed by the public, floor to ceiling with centimetres between the frames not unlike a commercial gallery and with what seems like an eye to how they work aesthetically in an interior design sense rather than how they relate to one another. Whilst this isn't unusual in galleries, it tends to be with larger canvases - see the main atrium at Birmingham Art Gallery or many rooms at the Walker. But with smaller works, these are watercolours, prints and even oils, it's impossible to focus on one image over another, the eye darting from one to the next, constantly intensely distracting from each other (not helped, however understandable it is as a conservation requirement, everything being glazed leading to obscuring bulb flair).
To make the job of enjoying the work even more impossible, because of the proximity of the frames to one another, there isn't any room for labels and so the gallery has instead provided booklets containing wall maps and silhouetted boxes as a key through to titles and their artists which works rather like an Argos catalogue which means the visitor spends half their time in the space with their head down trying to match the painting they're looking at with the details and I did hear visitors in pairs and groups not discussing what they thought of a painting but if it was the one that was in the booklet. Oh and outside of the New Acquisitions barely anything has supporting material so in some cases its impossible to really appreciate a work and how its important within its own context.
I tried. I tried. In the Watercolour section there's a section filled with Turners, but they're piled into two columns next to each other reaching floor to ceiling and none of them at typical eye height. The Portraits exhibition is the epitome of how damaging these choices are as Hogarth prints are thrown in with pre-Raphaelites paintings and tapestries, Freud paintings, photographs and video art but they're just sort of there, assuming your eyes can actually see them, assuming you're not having to crouch or which you had a step ladder to see things properly. To be fair, all of this is also true of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, which also has higgledy-piggledy staging and booklets, but it's also true that's a light airy space whereas the Whitworth has necessarily darkly painted walls and subdued lighting. Eventually I walked, unable to cope with the confusion of images.
Surrounding all of this too, I could see was empty wall space, or large dramatic walls with just one or three measly paintings or prints on the bottom so this isn't also just about maximising the potential. I've been to many regional art galleries with a similar (if not necessarily as important) collections stuck on a landing or in a stairwell but that is usually because they don't have the budget or the room. The Whitworth seems to have plenty of both. Try and replace the display format if you want, but just as the page upon turnable page antics of the printed book have survived for hundreds of years because it works, the model of artwork at shoulder height with an information label does too because it allows the viewer to think, the ponder and to concentrate on a single image at a time. Much is gained from sacrificing quantity for lucidity.
Elsewhere in the gallery at the moment, there's a really excellent exhibition of Chinese art from the 1970s which follows the classical display model with labels next to the paintings and free booklets containing pages of contextual information. At the centre of the space is a really poignant Ai Weiwei installation, Still Life, in which the artist presents hundreds of Stone Age axe heads and various other ancient carved paraphernalia with the context deliberately removed, the reinvention as an art installation "an iconoclastic gesture designed to offset the value and importance of these ancient objects". As I reflect on this, this is pretty close (albeit with more facile implications) to what the Whitworth's done to its permanent collection in these initial presentations. Luckily it is just the initial presentations which will change and hopefully with a less chaotic, more thoughtful approach.
I hope that they also won't bury the headline as much either. Within what I think is another part of the extension is a study area and it's here that some of the real jewels of the collection are displayed, largely unheralded and well away from the main spaces, so easily overlooked. A Rembrandt drawing. Two Lowrys. One of those Constable cloud sketches. Another Turner. I think I saw a Pisarro. I definitely saw an Ian Hughes and a Stanley Spencer. Why would you bury this stuff in what feels like the basement (albeit with a ground level entrance)? Oh and again mostly without accompanying information? Yes, at least I've seen them and it was nice to enjoy the experience in something akin to corporate office space rather than a "white cube", but it's listed as "Collections display" on the map which really does obscure what's here. I could have missed it.
Well that was a rant but I think it's rare that I've been this disappointed with this kind of experience. I'm usually pretty satisfied if there are some nice paintings to look at and an adequate toilet. There are several toilets and they're more than adequate but like I said the building deserves the awards it's received. Along with the Chinese art exhibitions, there's also a spectacular Cornelia Parker showing of a new artwork which consists of a massive embroidered reproduction of the Wikipedia entry about the Magna Carta stitched together by two hundred people often with a life connection to the words. So the temporary displays are varied and rather special. But I just feel, and I appreciate this is really a disagreement about a curatorial decision or policy, that the permanent collection should be as well served. Rant over.