“The existing provincial art gallery is the most unsatisfactory of earthly institutions,” scoffed the Manchester Guardian in July 1890, when the body of work that would form the core of the Whitworth Art Gallery’s permanent collection first went on display. “Such galleries are governed by committees of businessmen whose knowledge of art is, from any serious point of view, either nil or that of a respectable amateur.”
The article concluded that the Manchester gallery would likely fall foul of being “choked with rubbish”, describing the collection of casts as “almost ludicrously bad”, and the overall effect as affording “little or no ground for hope” for the future of the institution. In keeping with critical tradition, the author seems little concerned that among the local worthies guiding the gallery were none other than the Guardian’s then editor, CP Scott, and its owner, John Edward Taylor.
Visiting the same site this weekend, when it reopens after a £15m remodelling, the Victorian critic would be in for a shock. The Whitworth has since built a weighty reputation, acquiring the first Picasso of any public collection in 1922 and being described as the “Tate of the north” in the 1960s. Since 2006, it has been propelled by the energetic leadership of Maria Balshaw to become a dynamic international centre of contemporary art, seeing visitor numbers double to 190,000. ….