Return to Manchester Art Gallery – now open

So I went back to Manchester Art Gallery last week, and it was… different. The whole process of going there and getting in has changed, there’s a new one-way system, and obviously the staff are doing all they can to make sure it’s a safe visit for us. But what do all these changes mean for you as the viewer, what is the experience of visiting the gallery now really like? Well, I’ll tell you.

So, first of all, lets talk about the booking system they have – that is a little long winded. So to keep the number of visitors in at one time down, you now have to book a time slot to visit the gallery. I didn’t know what time I was going to arrive in town, so I waited till I got off the train and booked my ticket then (the slots start every 15 minutes). So I went on the Manchester Art Gallery website, which then directs you to a ticket website. The tickets are free, but you still have to put all your life details in there, name address, email, set a password etc. So that took a few minutes, and then the ticket is emailed or downloaded. I then got to the gallery and they had a print out of names, obviously I had only just booked my ticket 10 minutes before, so I wasn’t on the list. It was fine, I could show them the ticket on my phone and head in. But look, it’s all just a bit faffy. And say you don’t have good signal or your phone is low on battery – I know that is rare and a pretty old school way of thinking about things but still. It’s just a bit of an effort, that’s all.

Next point, the one-way system. This is in place for obvious current reasons and to be fair, I think most people follow some kind of direction when visiting a gallery any way. However, it does make things tricky, or almost impossible, for you to go back and see something you may have missed. I also got a bit confused about where to exit – it’s at the back of the shop in the foyer between the new and old building by the way. That’s another point, the whole area of the newer part of the gallery is closed off, shutting half the gallery basically. I am not sure why, surely there is still artwork in there? I know they close certain rooms when they are installing a new exhibition, but the whole half? I’ve not seen that before. Which leads me on to my next point…

The newer part of the gallery usually hosts their newest exhibitions and more contemporary art. Without that, you just see the same permanent collection as always. Being a Mancunian and an art fan since forever, I have visited Manchester Art Gallery numerous times, so I have seen all the classic works many of times before. Plus, I can’t imagine Manchester is getting many tourists at the moment, so surely most people have seen this work a million times over. However, it seems like the gallery is aware of this. In one room, which has changed, the exhibition focuses on what Manchester Art Gallery is, named ‘Re-imagining the galleries.’ There are text plaques on the wall, mixed with artwork old and new, and video screens showing recorded Zoom chats. All this is talking about how the gallery’s history and how it is changing. The Zoom chats show a mix of gallery staff, artists and volunteers, all discussing the artwork and what that means to them and the viewer. They seem to be going through a change, looking again at their permanent collection and trying to think of ways to update this, or bring us something new. So fingers crossed and watch this space I guess?

One of the exhibitions that is new-ish, started earlier in the year before lockdown and set to be on until 4th October, is ‘Jerwood Makers Open’, a collection of artists and makers whose work ‘promotes the significance of making and materials…’ There were a couple of pieces that stood out to me, the first being by Tana West, named ‘Through a Glass Darkly’. As you enter the gallery space you are confronted by a black cage, almost a prison like structure. You can walk through it, and I felt uneasy as I did. Hung on the metal, black, 8ft-ish high frame, are these black shiny shapes which look back at you. ‘Black Mirror’ style shapes, reflective of light but not of any faces/features etc. Although the cage is open, you do feel enclosed within the space. After reading the blurb, I find out this piece draws its inspiration from the hall of mirrors house at a funfair, and the black mirrors represent our current anxieties about the future. This is very relevant at the moment as who has clue what the future looks like?!

Another piece I was drawn to was, what I named, ‘Wall of Ceramics’ actual name ‘Making all the greens unstable.’ This piece was by artist Bethan Lloyd Worthington. To me, it looks like a wall of clay tests and templates. The space was filled with abstract pieces of clay, a collage of clay if you will. The tones were all green, muted, earthy green shades. Within the collage there were a mix of group pieces, a series of repeated shapes, and individual and recognisable shapes too, like a mug on a shelf. There were pallets of clay and green, and random broken shapes too. The whole ensemble was a miss-match of clay elements, all placed together to flow and work as one. I was a fan!

So, if you fancy taking a trip to the galleries again, then do! It was good to be back there and seeing art again, but I was just a bit gutted there was nothing new to view, there’s been enough time to plan for it guys! But then again, they have been thinking about it and you can see that in the re-imagining room. I just hope they get cracking on updating it soon and opening with some new exhibitions. So I wouldn’t blame you for waiting a while, waiting for something new, especially if you have been to the gallery before, or went earlier in the year. It’s obviously a good gallery, just not quite at it’s best at the moment. That’s kind of understandable I guess.

Find out more about Manchester Art Gallery‘s exhibitions and current processes here.

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