Where our vision and mission comes from, what it means and what it looks like
Where does it come from?
Our vision is rooted our founder’s intentions and responds to ongoing national and international critical reflection on what the purpose of a public art gallery is in the 21st century.
Manchester Art Gallery is the original ‘useful museum’, initiated in 1823 by artists with the help of merchants and industrialists, as an educational institution with a social purpose, to ensure that the city and all its people grow with creativity, imagination, health and productivity.
It was originally created as the Royal Manchester Institution for the Promotion of Literature, Science and the Arts, in a time before our current understanding of a museum or gallery was fully formed. In the early 18th Century, as Manchester and the world rapidly industrialised, the arts and sciences were taught together, with art being seen as an intrinsic part of how we should shape the world and society.
The Institute taught a range of classes and subjects to a wide range of people. In the building there were geology lectures and chemistry laboratories alongside art and design schools. Over time these functions migrated elsewhere in the city – for example, the Manchester School of Art to Oxford Road – and since 1882 the gallery has been proudly part of Manchester City Council.
The original ambitions of the gallery reflect the language of the men – it was mostly men – who saw themselves as the engineers of social and cultural ’betterment’, with the use of phrases such as:
- for advancement and diffusion of knowledge
- a manufactory for working up the raw intelligence of the town
- mental and moral improvement
- rational amusement
- an ideal of a Manchester imaginatively planned
The rather paternal and instrumental language of these intentions should not mask the basic ideals of benevolence and the compassionate values which underpinned them and which we would broadly share now.
On original plans for the building, the architect Charles Barry inscribed on the cover (in Latin, of course): ‘Nothing Beautiful Unless Useful’; we like to stand by this founding statement today.
What does it mean?
Our vision was, and continues to be, developed through extensive public consultation and as part of Manchester City Council’s Our Manchester Strategy and the Arts Council England’s 10 year strategy.
During a series of workshops, staff and volunteers developed four clear aims and these form the basis of our vision of how museum can be useful to the people around us.
Manchester Art Gallery strives for social impact and societal health through a holistic and purposeful artistic programme of art and education for all people. This includes exhibitions, education, community programmes, events, arts and health projects.
At the heart of this lies a belief in the value of social capital and ‘artful living’ being fundamental to a healthy society.
As a public institution that is part of Manchester City Council, it is vital that we manage and deploy our resources well: making intelligent use of our holdings, buildings and collections which all belong to the residents of the city. This is all part of our legacy and responsibility within our role in the City and to its wider economy that works for everyone.
We consistently review and develop our policies, processes and ways of working to improve the way we work to deliver a holistic artistic programme for all.
Art School for Life
The Gallery was founded to ensure a healthy culture for a growing city. It was the birthplace of the Manchester School of Art and the School of Industrial Design. We campaign for the role of art and artists in broader society and for a full-spectrum approach that includes talent and skills development, visual literacy, problem solving, social cohesion and learning through making and doing.
We want Manchester to be a city where everyone can see themselves as an artist, where the gallery can be a touchstone for this in every stage of residents’ lives and we can make the kind of culture we want to live in.
Civic Think Tank
Manchester Art Gallery was founded as a ‘Civic Think Tank’; creating a convening space for voices across the city, providing creative education for all classes and cultures.
We nurture diversity and value nuance and complexity, with artistic and social programmes offering an antidote to polarised debates, promoting intergenerational and intercultural working, embedding democratisation and decolonisation across the institution, developing co-curation models with a view to ‘social making’, and piloting new forms of philanthropy based on the renewed public value of the institution.
What does it look like?
Since 2018 these four aims have guided our thinking and what we do, and come to life and into action through our work. For example:
- In exhibitions such as Get Together and Get Things Done, and in School of Integration developed by Tania Bruguera, or Grayson’s Art Club which highlighted the role of art during the Coronavirus pandemic.
- It is manifest in the transformation of our ground floor gallery into the Lion’s Den, using our collections as part of Sure Start sessions and our work hosting refugees and asylum seekers.
- Over at the former Gallery of Costume at Platt Hall we have been working with the surrounding neighbourhoods, to re-imagine the hall as a new kind of museum that is made with and for the people who live around it.
- Our education and health and wellbeing programmes seek to instil a philosophy of care and consideration in all walks of life and we play a lead role in creatively transforming education across the city through the MADE partnership.
We are now undertaking a critical re-evaluation and reorganisation of our collections and displays that will bring Manchester Art Gallery every closer to the vision we imagined together.
This is all a work in progress, and we hope that everyone will join us in this mission.