THE TALES OF ONE CITY
17.06.2011 / AI Profile / 0 Comments
Dr Maria Balshaw, director of the Whitworth and Manchester Art Galleries
Maria Balshaw is seen as a paradigm for the modern cultural director: academically accomplished, administratively enlightened with an instinct for popular appreci- ation, and someone who has successfully knitted an upward professional trajectory with happily bringing up two children. One of her recreations, according to Who's Who, is "Dancing (especially in kitchen with my kids)", and in her citation as one of the Cultural Leadership Programme's Fifty Women to Watch last year, all that was boiled down to "Maria is smart, savvy and fun".
She probably won't appreciate the gender distinction, at 41 she is the leading woman public gallery director outside London for whom a national role sure- ly beckons.
As of May, she straddles the visual arts of Manchester as the director of both the Whitworth Gallery, which belongs to the university, and the city council's Manchester Art Gallery in a unique alliance between town and gown. "I suppose I didn't think I was
busy enough" she says coyly. Balshaw got her first in English and cultural studies from Liverpool, a distinction in her critical theory MA from Sussex, and turned that into a DPhil in African American Visual Culture. Then she became a lecturer at
Northampton University where she taught literature, film, painting and architecture - "within the context of fairly politicised visual culture studies. I thought I would do that for most of my career" - and then a fellow in American cultural studies at Birmingham.
She wrote books, married another academic (from whom she is now amicably divorced; her husband is now Nick Merriman, the director of the Manchester Museum) and had two children, now 13 and 11. In 2002 she came to the end of a research project (on urban space, to which we will return), peeped outside the groves of academe and saw an ad for a Midlands direc- tor of the new Creative Partnerships - "school should be anything but uniform".
She took it as a two year research secondment from the university and revelled in bringing creativity into the classroom. Then, finding herself at another cross- roads, she decided not to return to university life but to apply instead for the new Clore Leadership Programme. Emerging from the year-long fellowship she looked towards public art administration, and in 2006 she was approached by a headhunter looking for a new director of Manchester University's Whitworth.
Was her academic background important? "Really important - I could have managed without it, but it would have been much harder because academics are very focus-conscious and quite demanding in terms of intellectual relationships, so it's important having credibility to speak to and engage colleagues on campus" she says. "I was welcomed into the fold instantly rather than seen as outside cultural sector person."
The Whitworth Institute and Park was founded in 1889 in the great Victorian age of philanthropy in the name of one of its great industrialists, Sir Joseph Whitworth. In 1958 it was transferred to the university and changed its name.
Almost everything has changed there in the last five years - there were 80,000 visitors a year then, there are 170,000 now. "The gallery was rela- tively inward facing and now it's one of the best connective galleries out- side London" she says. "The staff hasn't changed much, there was always great talent and desire to do good work, but it had lost its sense of connection to the university and out- side world".
Now, connections with the com- munity have blossomed through a more lively exhibitions programme and external focus - working with local Sure Start centres, for instance - and the family programme brings in thousands of children each year. Next year for the first time the Whitworth will have Arts Council revenue fund- ing.
Although the Whitworth Gardens behind had originally been part of the gallery as a part of the city fathers' mission to improve the inhabitants' well-being, through the years the building has turned its back. She has HLF funding now for a £12m scheme to extend and open the gallery to the gardens, which should be completed in summer 2014.
"The gallery's at the limit of capacity, it can't take any more school groups and is often very crowded" she explains. "There are 55,000 objects in the collection available to use but no space to work with them. And there's a beautiful park around us we can't really engage with, the back is horrible, and we feel we need to embrace the park and pull people in as well as take our art out.
"The collections are wonderful and deserve it, and Manchester deserves a gallery that can work in that way. There's a connection that's just been undermined and lost down the years, so in a sense we're going back to the vision of the original founders, the great men of Manchester."
Manchester Art Gallery is even more venerable, started in the 1820s as the Royal Manchester Institution for the Promotion of Science, Literature and the Arts. Its art gal- leries were opened to the public ten years later, and in 1882 it was handed over to corporation care. It enshrined other collections along the way, along with major bequests of mostly classical and British art. Now, since a £35m expansion under Virginia Tandy a decade ago, there has been a focus on contemporary collecting.
"The art gallery has been waiting for the next phase as the city centre gallery that has a role as both the cultural shop window for Manchester and providing a service for local communities" Balshaw says, who has appointed a head of operations, Kate Farmery, to "make sure things hap- pen when I'm not there". Together they are creating a new vision of what the gallery has to do in terms of inter- national connection and local con- text, "how to make the art gallery feel as distinctive and wonderful as it needs to be."
Alliances are important and Balshaw has made working connec- tions with other museums and galleries in the city through the Manchester Museums Consortium which involves all the major institutions in Greater Manchester, including the Manchester Museum, the Lowry, the Cornerhouse, the Imperial War Museum North, the Museum of Science and Industry and the People's History Museum, exchanging ideas, strategies and information. No doubt the new National Football Museum, opening in the autumn in what was Urbis in the city centre, will be a recruit.
The cultural urban story is a constant fascination for Maria Balshaw, and it was the subject of most of her books. City Sites of 2000 looked at cultural thinking in New York and Chicago, but also at how intellects working in different cities across the world can operate together. "The intellectual range and exchange of critical ideas of people who aren't in the same place bring a different perspective that's really important" she says, and the Whitworth's contribution to this summer's Manchester International Festival is an echo: 1395 Days without Red, commissioned by a partnership including the Whitworth, the festival and Artangel, is a collaboration of two films about one woman's trauma during the siege of Sarajevo as an orchestra in the city rehearses a Tchaikovsky sym- phony and how the music in her head keeps her going.
Perhaps it is an example of "adaptive resilience" which Maria Balshaw believes is essential in modern life, and in a cultural environment that is suffering financial cuts.
"It's too glib to say we'll innovate our way out of what is without doubt the most difficult situation that we've ever faced, and I don't want to move to that falsely cheery position. The good things that have happened to museums and galleries in the past decade have fundamentally changed how we do our business, massively for the better, so I look at the prospects and say, 'How do I protect the things that I absolutely believe in, things that benefit visitors who need the things we offer?'. It means we will have to move more slowly and do things in different ways, and there lie some opportunities.
"But we have to maintain the commitment to the very highest quality and the most ambitious work we can do, however much money we have to achieve it."
1970 Born, January 24
1988-91 BA Hons, Liverpool University
1991-92 MA, Sussex University; DPhil, 1997
1993-97 Lecturer, University College Northampton
1997-2002 Fellow, Birmingham University
2002-05 Director, Creative Partnerships, Birmingham
2004-5 Clore Leadership Fellow
2006- Director, Whitworth Gallery
2011- Director, Manchester Art Gallery
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