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Maria Balshaw’s two hats

Jonathan Schofield on town and gown working together in their galleries

Written by . Published on February 28th 2011.


Maria Balshaw’s two hats

Manchester Art Gallery is owned and operated by Manchester City Council, the Whitworth Art Gallery by the University of Manchester.

“If I thought for one minute that this was a cost-cutting exercise I would simply walk away. It is nothing of the sort. It is the opposite of a cost-cutting exercise, it’s value for money.”

Soon the two will be run by one person: Maria Balshaw, the present Director of the Whitworth. This will follow the retirement of Moira Stevenson, the current Art Gallery director. Balshaw will take up the new role on 1 April.

The appointment could be a stroke of genius.

Balshaw has made the Whitworth the most exciting gallery in the North of England through a series of pioneering and exciting exhibitions including the present examination of Mary Kelly’s work. If she can bring this level of verve to Manchester Art Gallery then the ante could well and truly be upped across the city.

If there's a worry it's that Balshaw’s inspired direction could be watered down while looking after both galleries and both collections – and it should be remembered that Manchester Art Gallery isn’t just about the building on Mosley Street but the other city collections such those in the Gallery of Costume in Platt Fields Park.

Balshaw, ever the brimming, driving, confident optimist, is certain dilution won’t happen.

“I won’t let myself be watered down,” she says. “I am passionate about this new role. After securing the HLF funding for the Whitworth (click here) I felt I needed a new challenge. This is perfect. I am committed to Manchester and I want to work as hard as ever making both the collections and the galleries the best they can be.”

Bringing town and gown together so intimately is ground-breaking, what's the thinking behind it and how did it come about?

“It involves the university and the city talking in a new way," says Balshaw. "Sir Howard Bernstein approached the university aware of the recent success of The Whitworth and wondered if we could bring some of that to Manchester Art Gallery.

“Think how complementary the collections are. Manchester has the oils, we have the watercolours, the Gallery of Costume has the clothes and we have the wallpapers. Working together we can really boost the profile of the city and the university in these areas. I think other cities should be scared of what we can achieve by being so intimately connected.”

Maria Balshaw pauses before outlining more of her vision.

“I will be looking to maintain the more avant garde nature of the Whitworth combined with the accessibility of recent exhibitions – build on what we have there. At the same time I want to bring new ideas into Manchester Art Gallery, mingle the traditional with the contemporary and the popularist. The up-coming Anish Kapoor exhibition is part of that - and shows the good work already taking place there. For both places we should remember that interpretations of nineteenth century and earlier art can be as exciting as exhibitions of new work. Playful as well. Neither gallery should be snooty.”

This is all big picture, positive stuff, but there’s a little alarm bell ringing.

Is the idea here not only to exploit Balshaw’s undoubted talents but also to split a wage? Is it all about a cash-strapped university and city council saving money on separate directors’ salaries.

Maria Balshaw’s voice rises at this. She dismisses the idea.

“If I thought for one minute that this was a cost-cutting exercise I would simply walk away. It is nothing of the sort. It’s a pooling of resources so that important elements of city life can work better together and do remarkable things. It is the opposite of a cost-cutting exercise, it’s value for money.”

Thinking it through again it's hard not to agree. Given the common ground between Manchester Art Gallery and the Whitworth, given the complementary if different nature of the collections, having a skilful captain at the helm should mean singleness of purpose in the main Manchester galleries. This in turn should lead to exciting times for art lovers in the city. Whatever the motivation Confidential thinks Balshaw's appointment across town and gown is a good move for the city and the university.

Follow JonathanSchofield on twitter @JonathSchofield

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6 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Tremendously pleasedFebruary 28th 2011.

Exciting news. Should move the Art Gallery up a notch or two.

1 Response: Reply To This...
Ghostly TomJuly 16th 2012.

Or drag it down to the level of the Whitworth

Kwong LeeFebruary 28th 2011.

This is indeed great news. Many of us have seen the remarkable positive changes to The Whitworth Art Gallery in recent years under the direction of Maria - her style of management and can-do-ness is an inspiration. I am a believer of collaborations and so I am really looking forward to working with both Whitworth and Manchester Art Gallery on the potential of Manchester being a truly world-class city in presenting visual arts - both contemporary and historical.

Ghostly TomJuly 16th 2012.

I didn't realise that the same person who directs the Whitworth Art Gallery was one and the same as the one who is currently destroying the Manchester Art Gallery. It all comes horribly clear.

DavidJuly 16th 2012.

It is saying something about Manchester councils ability to run and maintain it's cultural assets,that it's chief executive approaches the university run Whitworth Gallery head to take over the Manchester Art Gallery.I have no doubt she will do a good job of it.

Ghostly TomJuly 17th 2012.

Have you been to the 2nd rate exhibitions she has replaced beautiful art in two of the galleries?

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