In Manchester’s typically contrarian fashion, one of the city’s great cultural institutions is not where you would expect it. Its not in the busy commercial center, its not even in the famed vinyl valleys of the trendy northern quarter. But a 20-minute bus ride down the Oxford road, will take you to the fag-packet and heroine needle strewn Whitworth Park. What you’ll find there is not a few mangy benches and the friendly local drug dealer, but an eccentric neo gothic edifice combining baroque flamboyance and gothic solemnity to house a stunningly renovated art gallery.
Founded in 1889, the Whitworth was one of a number of aspirational projects designed to widen access to the arts. In its subsequent history it has amassed some notable works having spotted the then unknown Hockney and Gilbert and George. The recent renovation completed this February (to the tune of £15 million) has transformed the space from a regionally notable gallery to a nationally competitive exhibition space.
Going round the gallery, two things strike you. The first is just what an excellent job has been done. The Scandinavian layouts have been given a new lease of life by letting in more natural light, creating open expansive spaces that play well to the elegantly refitted interiors of brushed wood and bronze. It’s a wonderful experience to go round for the first time .The second thing that strikes you is the fact the building and its renovation seem to almost outdo the work it is designed to house.
Manchester is a city whose cultural output is of deservedly international standing, but its art scene has not quite caught up. The Royal Exchange playhouse can compete with London and the music scene needs no explanation. But in art there’s not much of a legacy beyond Lowry that the city can capitalize on. As such, the gallery is filled with bland and slightly mediocre work.
A case in point in the current exhibition dedicated to Cornelia Parker.  Conceptual art can work, but usually as an example of what was once groundbreaking forty years ago. There is only x number of times that one can present the urinal or the tomato can and it remain relevant and or significant. In the same way, the first conceptualists of course deserve recognition in the same way Duchamp or Warhol did. But every subsequent repetition of the same trick seems to me progressively more tired and uncreative. Cornelia Parker’s work is one such repetition of what made the conceptualists interesting forty years ago: deconstruction, inter-textuality, gender politics etc. Although much of it is good, its just not that interesting after so much of what she’s is doing has already been done, and arguably better.
The lacklustre content is perhaps not a problem with the gallery, but a problem with the London centric distribution of the UK’s many masterpieces. For this reason it’s a real tribute to the curators that they secured a temporary exhibition of the prolific Cai Guo-Qiang. Perhaps the most ambitiously theatrical performance and installation artist working today, you might know Guo-Qiang from the exuberant visual effects at the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. At the Whitworth one of his so-called gunpowder paintings is currently exhibited. He produces these by laying out monumentally sized canvases painted with gunpowder. He then (quite casually) ignites these in order to produce an exploded outline of the original drawing. The paintings evoke the ethereal lines of Chinese landscape brush painting. It is thus ironic and perhaps highly political that these scenes of  tranquility should be produced by such violent, almost industrial means. This was for me the stand out piece at the gallery.
Beyond this and the conceptualism, the gallery has found ingenious (yet frustrating ways) of displaying its notable works. One of the old tricks is to mix the prolific works with less prolific works to suggest that everything that surrounds the prolific stuff is of the same calibre as the less well known stuff. The other and more annoying trick is to refuse to label the works so as to again deny us the superficial pleasures of hunting out the famous names amidst the sea of not so famous names. All very sanctimonious stuff, but ultimately designed to hide the fact there just isn’t very much notable work. Its as if they’re saying, “just because we don’t have any Rembrandt’s , doesn’t mean we’re not as good as Tate”. Fair, but perhaps a bit naïve.
All in all, the renovation is another cultural feather in Manchester’s increasingly plumaged cap. While the permanent collection is good but not as outstanding as the setting, the appearance of a heavyweight like Guo Qiang promises much for the future.