10 More novel ways to spend lockdown
Patrick Kelleher from our Visitor Services Team shares his recommendations for lockdown reads.
Well, here we are again; another year, another lockdown and that means the gallery is still closed to the public. In the meantime, we’re here with another selection of novels about artists, or with art-based themes, that might help fill that gallery-shaped void in your life. So, if you were given books tokens for Christmas (you lucky people), prepare to redeem them now!
With all non-essential shops closed (I know, how are bookshops non-essential?) you can pick them up at your favourite online shopping mega corporation, or, if you prefer, you can find most of them on Hive, a network of local booksellers.
Check out all of Patrick’s recommendations on the Magnet blog.
The Masterpiece. © Oxford University Press
Unlocking ‘Work’ by Ford Madox Brown
Since the arrival of the Coronavirus pandemic, our team of guides have been unable to deliver live tours in the Gallery, due to lockdown closures and the need for social distancing. We now offer virtual tours once a fortnight over Zoom in the MAG Unlocked programme. We have chosen Ford Madox Brown’s painting ‘Work’ on a number of occasions and focussed on different aspects of the painting. Here each guide talks about their interest in the painting.
CHILDREN IN ART
Work is about the different social classes and the work and lifestyle available to them. In the mid 1850s, half of Britain’s population was under 20 and Ford Madox Brown has reflected this by including 2 babies and 9 children.
Brown has used children to add to his description of Victorian society and his observations on it. The type of work that Brown has enabled involves bringing fresh water to the community. There’d been a cholera epidemic in 1854, because of water pollution and lack of sanitation. 10,000 Londoners died, including one of Brown’s servant girls.
Let’s have a look at the children.
The group of motherless street urchins was described by Madox Brown as “Ragged dirty brats, who get in the way and make a noise.” They do have an endearing side – “they like insects and miniature plants.” They are neglected by their drunken father and he will be prosecuted for this. They’re at the bottom of the painting and the bottom of the social order.
The eldest child is no more than 10 and wearing a woman’s dress, which has been donated to her. It’s FAR too big. She hasn’t the means or ability to alter the dress. Her work is the role of mother and the two younger children cling to her. She tries her best to keep her little brother in check and Brown says this is causing her prematurely to be “a SCOLD.” Her little sister is eating a carrot. The poor didn’t have the problem of excessive sugar consumption affecting the rich at that time.
But to many Victorians, DRUNKENNESS was the cause of society’s ills. Many well to do, well dressed ladies, such as the one with the purple bonnet to the left of the road workers, would distribute temperance tracts and they focussed on working class men. She’s just directed one of her tracts into the trench. You can see that the navvies are disregarding the tract fluttering in their midst and there’s a screwed up tract in the wheelbarrow. The lady’s little girl is clinging to her – a little bit like the little girl snuggling towards her big sister in the group of urchins. But their lives are worlds apart.
There’s another family group underneath the tree – a young, shoeless Irish man with his wife and child – victims of the Great Famine. I think Brown is being particularly sympathetic here. The young woman’s bonnet looks like a halo, reminiscent of a mother and child or Holy Family depiction. Look at the way they are tending their child – the husband carefully spoon-feeding gruel and his wife carefully holding the baby.
Not far away, two little girls are carrying jugs, illustrating how conditions were at the time regarding water supply. They would have to walk long distances to and from a standpipe or pump and they would have to queue.
But, despite poverty and hardship, children will be children. Three children are playing on the railings. They’re barefoot and you can see that the child on the left somersaulting over the railing has no underclothes, such is their deprivation.
Ann Jackson, Volunteer Guide at Manchester Art Gallery
I chose “Work” for my tour “In Fashion”, as it’s a great example in showing the fashions of the mid 1850s and the contrasts between rich and poor. At this time, people had very few clothes and these were mainly all hand-made, so only the rich would be able to afford the expense of tailored garments. Clothes were rarely thrown away, but would be passed on, sold on, recycled and adapted.
There are some very fine outfits in the painting – we see the MP and his daughter returning from Hampstead Heath in their splendid riding costumes, only to find that their path is symbolically blocked by the road workers. On the left, we see two very elegant ladies squeezing through a narrow space by the workers. It’s a hot day, but the ladies are wearing voluminous and cumbersome skirts, cape jackets, shawls, leather boots, gloves and tightly fitted bonnets, one of them shielding herself from the sun with a parasol. As a total contrast, just in front of them, we see the chickweed seller in tattered rags, a hole in the brim of his hat and he is barefoot.
The depiction of the workers at the centre of the painting gives a fascinating insight into working clothes of the day – bandanas, shirts with rolled up sleeves, hard-wearing trousers and sturdy boots. By now, the sewing machine, first invented in 1830, is becoming more widely used which means that clothes could now be made more quickly and more cheaply thus meeting the demand for sturdy workwear to clothe the expanding populations in cities like Manchester.
At the bottom of the painting, we see a young girl holding a baby and caring for her brother and sister. The black ribbon on the baby’s sleeve tells us that there has been a death – most likely the mother of this little family. The girl’s red dress – once a fine garment that has probably been handed down many times – is too big for her but a pin at the back of her dress helps with the fit- see if you can spot it in the painting next time you visit the Gallery!
On the far right, we see two gentlemen – Thomas Carlyle and Reverend Maurice, who are soberly dressed and look very slim compared to the ample figures of the two elegant ladies. There is even a hierarchical dress code for the dogs that you see at the bottom of the painting – the dog belonging to one of the elegant ladies wears a smart red coat and a silver collar, whereas the dog on the right belonging to the lower classes just has a rough piece of rope for his lead.
There was very little photography at this time, so how fortunate that Ford Madox Brown completed this masterpiece in such amazing detail to show not only the fashions of the time but many other aspects of everyday life in Victorian society.
Isabelle Killicoat, Volunteer Guide at Manchester Art Gallery.
SOCIAL CLASS IN VICTORIAN ART
I used ‘Work’ by Ford Maddox Brown to explore the Victorians’ obsession with social class and placing people in particular social categories. We see the rapid growth of cities together with the economy and a wealthy middle class emerging during this time where improvement was part of their culture. The rise of this wealthy middle class changed the art market with a new class of rich businessmen willing to spend their money on paintings.
In contrast, the working class/lower working class worked in brutal and unsanitary conditions – they did not have access to clean water and food, education for their children or proper clothing. Artists, instead of recoiling from urban reality, began to celebrate it with street scenes, the nobleness of work, railway stations, seaside and even crime all provided subjects for painting.
Although Brown was never himself an official member of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood, he did adopt many of their stylistic tendencies, particularly the use of bright colours and attention to detail. Brown got the idea for ‘Work’ from seeing navvies excavating sewers in Hampstead, North London – it is typically assumed that this was part of the extensions of London’s sewerage system, which were being undertaken to deal with the threat of typhus and cholera. With the hard-working navvies central to the painting, Brown uses a hierarchical composition to illustrate the different social classes – in contrast to the navvies, and depicting the lower class, the ragged and barefoot plant seller is described by Brown as a “ragged wretch who has never been taught to work”.
Then there is a group of ragged children, whose mother is dead and the oldest girl of ten is in charge of the rest of the children. In contrast, middle class ladies represent philanthropic acts and religious education. Brown also includes two prominent men of the day, Frederick Denison Maurice and Thomas Carlyle which give emphasis to the importance of education and self-improvement.
Finally, overlooking the street scene on horseback, we have an upper class couple on horseback, who by virtue of their wealth and place in society, have no need to work.
So I chose ‘Work’ because it is an excellent illustration of social stratification in Victorian England providing a commentary on the role of work and its relationship to Victorian class structure. It is also a stunning example of the Pre Raphaelite style of painting.
Nina Wainwright, Volunteer Guide at Manchester Art Gallery
(DON’T) VOTE FOR BOBUS
Upon first viewing, one can quite easily feel overwhelmed by this epic sweep of mid Victorian society. A vast teeming humanity seems to tumble out of the canvass as though from a lucid dream, but we can readily find guides in the two prominent figures to the right; Christian Socialist Frederick Maurice and controversial historian, Thomas Carlyle. They are joined in momentary admiration for the swirl of human energy dominating the centre. There, the labourers appear transcendental as they heroically devote their evident physical strength to a water-engineering project that will improve the wellbeing of everyone.
Careful scrutiny reveals a further reference to Frederick Maurice on the red brick wall to the far left. Amongst the cluster of posters is one bearing the title ‘Working Men’s College’; the institution that he had helped to found in London during 1854. Education and hard work would therefore be the key to personal fulfilment.
A recurring theme in Thomas Carlyle’s books was the importance of true heroism and moral leadership down the centuries. But it was through the writing of such history that he realised just how debased the values of his own day had become. Industrialisation he believed, had allowed the relentless pursuit of profit to come to the fore. Where once the human spirit had flourished, there now seemed only to be avarice. The torn fragment of a poster, again on the red wall, ironically proclaims ‘Money!! Money!! Money!!’
Bobus Higgins is a fictional character from Carlyle’s ‘Past and Present’ (1843) and is the very embodiment of everything that the author deplores. In his prolific and exploitational business practice, Bobus displays a complete ignorance of the individual talent and potential that a person can bring to the world. A later Carlyle work reveals that his villain is in fact a corrupt sausage manufacturer who readily finds a use for horse meat! The sandwich boards being carried along the street to the right, reveal that an election is taking place and that people are being exhorted to ‘Vote for Bobus’. A notice affixed to the fence tells us that depressingly, he will win but just beyond the procession, we notice an emerging horse drawn carriage. The uncontrolled dog in the middle of the road seems poised to worry the horses and we are invited to imagine ensuing chaos of the sort witnessed in Hogarth’s ‘Chairing the Member’ from ‘The Humours of an Election’ series of 1755:
In ‘Work’, Ford Madox Brown portrays a world still very much at odds with itself, but in so doing, he provides reassuring glimpses of the human capacity to care. A final visit to the red wall discovers the besmirched remains of one more Bobus poster. Scrawled on to it is the word ‘Don’t’. In spite of everything, there may yet be grounds for hope!
John Ward, Volunteer Guide at Manchester Art Gallery
MAG Unlocked Zoom tours are continuing into 2021. Find out more on our events page: https://manchesterartgallery.org/exhibitions-and-events/event/
Gallery 1 – Creative Families
In an art gallery, a toddler balances on a row of low sponge tiles, a baby reaches up to the light fittings in the ceiling and a small girl puts a finger to her lips and creeps quietly around a corner so as not to wake the giant painting of a lion. Children participate in art galleries in a myriad of ways that are “sometimes predictable, sometimes completely surprising” (Macrae et al)
Since September 2019, a team of arts and early years practitioners and researchers have been meeting at Manchester Art Gallery to co-design a new gallery for families. Until March 2020 we met regularly in the Gallery to share research and experiences that helped us think about the space. We looked at artworks that might be exhibited, we followed routes around the gallery that children had taken before us and we shared examples of nursery visits.
When the Gallery shut during the initial Covid-19 lockdown in March, building work had already begun to open up the space. Heavy shutters that had stopped the light from pouring in were pulled back, changing the quelled, quiet, low light gallery into a sunlit, open space. With lockdown temporarily closing the Gallery doors, we all held enough enthusiasm to continue meeting. We turned to Zoom, like so many other people around the world. Throughout the conversations a vision began to emerge of how values, interactions and collection artworks might work together in the new space.
The design of the space will be flexible to enable different organisations to deliver public health and education sessions and services. A series of movable screens and functional furniture will be in the space so that we can create new zones and configurations of furniture to suit needs. You can rest, play, feed, drink, watch, follow, share, create, talk, move, draw, listen. In considering the gallery as a holistic experience, we imagined the space as a base or nest from which the families can explore the rest of the Gallery. As soon as it is safe to do so we will begin to deliver a varied creative programme in the space for children, parents, carers and the people who work so hard to support families across Manchester.
The artworks in the space have been selected by our interdisciplinary group and support city wide agendas that aim to improve the life chances of children in Greater Manchester. Last week we installed a selection of bonbonnieres, these little 18th Century pots, originally filled with sweets or breath mints, are colourful and depict fanciful animals that have an almost cartoon like quality that may resonate with younger children. Yet the contents that once lay inside would have been cut from plantations by the hands of enslaved people. Sugar, in all its sweetness, is intrinsically linked to Britain’s colonial history. Sections of a poem by Tina Otito Tamsho-Thomas contextualise the bonbonniere as a symbol of enslavement legacy, sugar trade history and British colonialism. Today, excess sugar consumption sits at the heart of the healthy eating agenda, a key priority area for local early years providers. You can read more about the work we have been doing with MMU Education and Social Research Institute and our research into the bonbonnieres in the recent iJade article.
We would like to thank our partners for their continued support; as a team we have a respect for children and families and a desire to make society a better place, that coupled with a commitment and generosity of spirit has meant that our family programme is more impactful than ever.
Manchester health Visiting Team
Tiddlywinks Nursery Group
Martenscroft Nursery School and Children’s Centre
MMU (Children and Childhood Research Group)
The Whitworth (Early Years)
Message in a Bottle – Workshopping in a Pandemic by Naomi Kendrick
Naomi Kendricks shares with us her experiences as an artist working in Covid-times.
At the start of the year my role as a freelance artist looked completely different. In essence my job was to gather people together in gallery and community settings and Sure Start centres. These spaces were a place of exchange: exhibitions, artworks, materials, debate, stories and discovery. They were tactile, messy, busy and vibrant spaces, each one a shared experience of art and a route to togetherness that we will never take for granted again.
Of course, these physical spaces disappeared over night in March, the Gallery’s exhibitions and artworks retreated into gallery website, mounds of materials were left untouched, behind cupboard doors. And of course the people were gone, there was such silence.
Social isolation is not new, even though I work with large numbers of people with very different lives across multiple projects it is an issue that crops up repeatedly. The reasons for this isolation are many and complex, for example becoming a parent for the first time when your family is in a different country, being agoraphobic or waiting years for your new guide dog and having to rely on others to guide you outside of your home.
Covid brought isolation for everyone, in a way we could never have imagined. How could I reach people now, without the space, artworks, materials, gesture, touch?
One route was technology – making films, zoom and social media. Like most people, I have dabbled in these this year, however this has not always been the right route. Many of the adults I work with don’t use this technology for economic reasons, disability or personal preference. And everything the babies and early years children needed was physical; paper, scissors, drawing tools, reflective surfaces, textured fabric…we learned early on from our Sure Start partners that some families lacked even the basics such as paper and scissors.
My working method changed to delivering workshops by post, email and over the phone. To supply materials we formed a production line, filling the gallery’s atrium and sending them out in boxes to hundreds of families I may never see; a message in a bottle.
My approach to workshops has always been that they should be participant-led, a two-way conversation. Ideally each workshop is a space I make which gently nudges people towards their own ideas, making and discovering. I plan a workshop and over the years perhaps come to know how people may respond, but really most of the work happens in the moment, it is noticing, gesturing, and encouraging the people in front of me. This year, without people, I found myself working blind.
I shifted to working by memory, having to place faith in my previous experience. Materials chosen for babies and young children that I know other children responded well to in workshops past, films suggesting how to explore materials or mindfully make marks were ‘performed’ by imagining people beyond the camera. Positive feedback has come back out of the ether I am delighted to say, but I would have loved to have been there the moment each of those boxes of materials were opened, or when the first marks were made…
One place where I have been able to communicate directly with people in a way that is closest to the call and response of a ‘normal’ workshop is with phone calls. Phone calls were initially simply a necessity, I needed to audio describe artworks and read workshops to blind and visually impaired people who live alone or phone people who do not use or have access to technology. However, I have come to favour phone calls as a remote workshop method. A phone call allows for an immediate two-way conversation, less self conscious than zoom, a perfect combination of intimacy and non-visual anonymity.
These conversations can, and do, meander in interesting ways. We begin with artworks I have described or printed out and sent in the post, or an artwork the person I’m speaking with has made and described to me. Inevitably questions, stories, memories, the things and people we miss, all tumble out in response to those initial artworks, taking us further and further away from the start of the conversation where ”How are you?” rarely has a positive answer. Art takes us somewhere, sometimes it brings us face to face with our feelings and fears about the pandemic and at others it takes us somewhere funny, tender, beautiful. And I say we, because of course I am not a machine, these points of contact have been beneficial for me too.
There are of course disadvantages in working one to one in this way, removing the framework of a physical setting and other people, means that lines can become easily crossed, and it can be emotionally draining. Something I always have to keep an eye on. However, for me, the benefits far outweigh this. I am able to reach people who are not only bound to their houses temporarily because of Covid restrictions but long term, because of disability and mental health problems. I am able to tailor workshops to an individual’s specific needs and interests, to go on a significant journey with them in a way you can’t when working simultaneously with a group of people. Gaining such detailed understanding of different people’s relationships with and responses to art feels like both a luxuary and a place of learning for me.
Every call has to end and more often than not it ends with the question “when will we be back at the gallery?” “When will Grosvenor Street be open again?” “I really miss everyone, how long do you think it will be?” Each workshop is a community, one person on the end of the phone can do a lot, but can never replicate that.
One year and so many people have been reached by our work in the learning team at Manchester Art Gallery and the TLC Art Project, through technology, post, phone calls and boxes of materials. The strangest, hardest and most revealing of times to be doing this. I wonder what we will take from it when we have had the time to reflect and see what we have achieved?
Thank you to the following for initiating and running these projects, for the work, for the support and for what we have been able to give in spite of it all! Katy McCall Early Years Manager, Kate Day/Nicola Colclough Adult Learning Managers and Louise Thompson Health and Wellbeing Manager at Manchester Art Gallery and Alison Kershaw and Rae Story at the TLC Art Project.
Naomi Kendrick is a freelance artist.
Understanding Manchester Art Gallery’s Contribution to Pandemic Recovery
Here in Manchester, like many regions across the north, we have been preparing for the transition next week from lockdown to Tier 3. While we are not surprised by this, the cultural sector is devastated by the news that museums, galleries, theatres and other public venues will not be able to open. This is particularly galling as non-essential retail (and even our own museum stores), gyms and hairdressers have been given the green light to resume their trade. From 2 December we can hit the shops and the treadmill but we cannot find solace and wander freely in a spacious 3000 sq metre art gallery with carefully timed and limited entry.
Not only does this defy logic, it seems to penalise specifically cultural organisations that have worked so relentlessly and invested so heavily to make ourselves safe and secure places to visit – and all with generous Government support.
This is not about the visitor economy, it is about the lifeline that art and culture provide to so many people, especially now, to provide an environment of care and consideration and wonder.
Today Manchester Art Gallery publishes a report in response to Neil Mendoza’s call to arts organisations to demonstrate how they can contribute to the nationwide recovery, as the sector “finds it very hard to quantify” the positive impact it has on communities when making its case to the Treasury.
98% of visitors reported feeling completely safe and 58% said that their visit had given them more confidence to return to other public spaces.
Since re-opening our galleries to the public in mid-August, we have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of thanks from our visitors, who see these free, safe public spaces as the first step to re-engaging with the world, seeking an opportunity to engage with things that offer joy, even while feeling anxious about returning to public spaces. 98% of visitors reported feeling completely safe and 58% said that their visit had given them more confidence to return to other public spaces. As lockdowns and isolation continue, re-socialisation and re-connection becomes an even more pertinent issue.
This crisis has exposed many fissures and inequities in our society, but it has also exposed our fundamental need for art at the centre of our lives, in all its forms from cooking to Caravaggio. This week I have had many calls from workers in the health sector, exhausted by relentless demands of caring, desperate for our doors to be open; “just to have some joy in all this”, as one said.
We therefore call on government to reassess this decision, and for a wholesale re-evaluation of the way the arts are considered. As we move towards some kind of life beyond Covid, we do not need a baseline economy, but a generative and inclusive one that capitalises on our creativity, and in this mix, museums and galleries gymnasia for the soul.
Alistair Hudson, Director of Manchester Art Gallery and the Whitworth. 27 November 2020
Culture Recovery Fund
Yesterday we received the very welcome news that we were successful in our application to the Culture Recovery Fund – part of the Chancellor’s £1.57 Billion Covid response to the arts sector.
Manchester Art Gallery has been awarded £780,022 along with our partner institutions the Whitworth and the Manchester Museum, who received £428,223 and £240,580 respectively.
This is a huge boost in difficult times, and is a much-valued lifeline for the gallery and the culture of the city as a whole. The funding for the gallery is designated for specific actions addressing the impact of Covid. The money is targeted at relieving the deficit in our finances due to lack of commercial income during lockdown and since we reopened in August. It will help ensure that the Trading Company that runs the gallery café and venue hire offer remains solvent and well supported. The Trading Company is a significant contributor to our income and helps drive our public programmes. There are still challenges ahead, with reduced footfall, no café offer for our visitors as yet, limitations on our retail offer and no possibility of events for the foreseeable future. But, it is great news, and we are extremely grateful for this support.
Some of the funds will go towards broader audience development work across the city and to joint working across the city’s cultural organisations, helping people through the pandemic and working with schools and the Manchester Cultural Education Partnership. The camaraderie and resilience across the city in lockdown has been a wonderful antidote to the problems we have all faced.
There is also some funding allocated to new Covid-safe learning programmes and to the additional costs related to the unavoidable delay in opening our Derek Jarman and Constellations exhibitions along with some updates to our website which will significantly enhance our digital offer and online programme.
We are very grateful to Arts Council England, DCMS and HM Treasury for this support and also to our audiences, supporters, communities, volunteers and staff who continue to keep Manchester Art Gallery free and open to all people as a place of civic thinking and public imagination, promoting art as a means to achieve social change.
Unearthing the mysteries of Manchester Art Gallery’s lost sculptures
As part of the ongoing Out of the Crate exhibition, a group of volunteers have been tasked with researching some of the gallery’s ‘cold cases.’ This refers to items in the sculpture collection about which the gallery knows very little. The gallery is also encouraging members of the public to engage in active research and get in touch if they know anything that could contribute to a more complete record for these objects.
A mysterious disappearance
As one of those volunteers, I have had the tremendous opportunity to engage in archival research. Before the COVID-19 lockdown required the gallery to close – thus halting my research – my research partner and I were focusing specifically on Cold Case 1. This concerns the mysterious disappearance of the gallery’s first acquisition, a group of 13 plaster casts (7 of which were copies after works by Antonio Canova) and 3 marble busts, donated by wealthy corn merchant Jonathan Hatfield. He donated them to the Royal Manchester Institution in 1825, which became Manchester City Art Gallery in 1882. Several of the casts stood in the main Entrance Hall well into the 20th century, flanking the pillars either side of the staircase. But by 1945, they had been removed from public view, possibly never to be seen again. Whilst our research has not yet uncovered a definitive answer as to what happened to them, it has brought to light several fascinating details that have helped the gallery build a clearer picture of these sculptures’ history.
Our first stop was Manchester Central Library, who hold a substantial amount of the Royal Manchester Institution’s records, including their meeting minutes. The casts are first mentioned during the meeting of 14th April 1825. It is here we find out that upon opening, some of the casts were “considerably damaged.” A fortnight later, a group of Italians were paid a sum of £13 to repair them. The minutes from the meeting of June 2nd indicates that by this time they had been repaired. This information is quite remarkable, for two reasons. First, it indicates that conservation work had to be undertaken before the sculptures were ever displayed. Second, it gives us a clue as to the sculptures’ fate. It shows that the casts were fragile, and easily breakable. It is possible that the casts were lost or disposed of after sustaining further damage in the 20th century.
Drawn by artists in the city
Another interesting point uncovered in these records is that upon arrival to Manchester, the casts took up residence in the kitchens underneath the Portico Library, where they would stay until at least 1827. During this time, artists were invited to draw them, and a competition was held for the best drawing, with a prize of ten guineas. A quick look in the Portico’s archives confirmed that the casts did indeed remain in the Portico for a time. Whilst this does not give us any clues as to their current whereabouts, it tells us that Manchester’s cultural institutions were not operating in isolation at this time. Much like today, they are working together for the city’s academic development and wellbeing.
Relatedly, the Central Library’s archives also have details of letters from Jonathan Hatfield that indicate his reasons for donating the casts. He wrote: “I offer them in the spirit of affection, and in the hope that the example will be followed by others, who wish to embellish their native town.” In another letter he also expressed a particular fondness of the cast of Endymion, stating: “this statue has excited more interest in Italy than any other of his [Canova’s] productions and indeed than any statue of modern times.” It is evident that the casts and busts meant a great deal to Hatfield.
Lastly, our most recent piece of archival research brought us back under the gallery’s roof. We scoured through works on paper, documents, photographs, and exhibition brochures in an attempt to pinpoint when the casts were removed from the Entrance Hall. A watercolour from 1906 shows some of the casts, and an ‘Illustrated Guide’ to the gallery’s collections from 1945 (by then curator Lawrence Haward) contains a photograph in which the casts are absent, after which their location is unknown.
Written by Holly Johnson, MA student,
Art Gallery and Museum Studies, University of Manchester
Making Conversation in Lockdown
By lead artist Naomi Kendrick
Making Conversation is an adult learning workshop the gallery that was established in 2006. Each workshop is led by me Naomi Kendrick, artist Helen Newman and a dedicated group of volunteers. It is a friendly social space where people gather to explore the gallery’s exhibitions, discuss their feelings about the artworks, and then make something in response. What is made is very much led by the maker and people work alone or in pairs – for practical reasons as some participants are blind or partially sighted or just because they want to collaborate. At the end of each workshop we come together to find out what has been made and discuss it. Making Conversation participants are a mixture of regulars (some have been coming for over a decade) and people who drop by. The relationship we have with each other during each workshop is just as important as the one that we have with the artworks we discover and create each time.
Apart, but still connected
In March 2020 we were parted. Our first ‘remote’ workshop was at the end of March, and the participants, Helen, and I communicated through phone calls, email and the post depending on each participant’s access to technology. We sent out images of artworks from the collection with a guide showing how to spend time noticing and absorbing those artworks, to think about them and then make work in response (using basic materials from around the home). In an attempt to keep people connected and to stick to the familiar Making Conversation approach we asked people to let us know how they got on and share with us what they had made. These responses ranged from sculpture, music, textiles, writing and photography, or even just a note to say how much they missed everyone. Helen then turned these responses into a newsletter which we sent back out to everyone. We’ve managed a workshop in this way each month since, and had new people join us as a result of the workshop being on the gallery website, social media and in the Creative Care Kits distributed by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority.
Is it real if it only exists in our respective imaginations?
During this time, I have been phoning one of our participants, Tony, once a fortnight. Tony is blind, lives alone and doesn’t have access to the internet and therefore my audio description enables him to continue participating in the workshop. Tony had been about to receive a new guide dog before lockdown but that had to be put on hold, so he has been very isolated.
In my first call with Tony each month I audio describe and read the newsletter showing what the rest of the group have been up to and then describe the artworks for this month’s workshop and discuss them with him. Two weeks later I phone back and find out what Tony has made in response. This has been a really interesting part of the process for me. For Tony the audio description I provide over the phone is the same as when we are at the gallery. But when Tony describes what he has made to me the roles are reversed, I am relying on his description. Sometimes what Tony has ‘made’ only exists in our respective imaginations. It began with a drawing which Tony described to me, he had physically made the drawing but it was then lost somewhere in his house. I wonder does it matter, neither of us has the means to look at it and Tony had described it beautifully, I felt I held it in my mind’s eye as clearly as he did.
Tony loves music, he plays and teaches the guitar and he began to select songs in response to the artworks I had described to him, playing them to me down the phone via Alexa if I hadn’t heard them before. One workshop featured an Issey Miyake dress, not something that particularly appealed to Tony as he “isn’t interested in fashion”. However, when I called back two weeks later he described an animal rights protest outfit he had designed (to both our surprise!) and described to me in great detail.
Tony and the other participants we have been in touch with are desperate to get back into the gallery, to be in the building and be with each other. Their exploration of art is a shared experience not one undertaken alone. The repeated question “when will we go back?” throughout this time has been hard to hear and impossible to answer – though I am recently told the staff at the gallery are working on establishing how this might safely happen again. Until then, as Tony said of our fortnightly phone calls:
I love art now [since coming to Making Conversation over the last 10 years], and your phone calls have kept me in touch with the art world, it [art] doesn’t come across the same on TV. If you stopped phoning me I’d really, really miss it. It’s a lifeline keeping in touch like this.Tony
You can follow Naomi on Twitter @naomikendrick
And try the Making Conversation lock down activities here.
Sarah Parker Remond commission
In 1859, African American, lecturer and abolitionist Sarah Parker Remond came to Lancashire to appeal to mill owners and cotton workers to support the US anti-slavery movement, she spoke in the Atheneum (now part of Manchester Art Gallery) and said the words: “
When I walk through the streets of Manchester and meet load after load of cotton, I think of those 80,000 cotton plantations on which was grown the $125m worth of cotton which supply your market, and I remember that not one cent of that money ever reached the hands of the labourers.”Sarah Parker Remond
Extinction Rebellion recently commissioned artist Venessa Scott to create two artworks, commemorating Sarah Parker Remond’s influential speech and celebrating the abolitionist meeting held at Manchester Cathedral in 1787, which fuelled the anti-slavery movement in Britain.
On Sunday 30th August 2020, the posters were sited across Manchester City Centre, as part of the Extinction Rebellion, Stand up to Racism and Black Lives Matter solidarity march, marking the city’s historic involvement with the abolition of slavery as well as highlighting systems and leaders who opposed it. This included a 8.46 minute take-the-knee demonstration outside the Royal Exchange in memory of the brutal murder of George Floyd.
Remond gave her first speech aged 16
Sarah Parker Remond (June 6, 1826 – December 13, 1894) was born free in Massachusetts and became known as a lecturer, abolitionist, and agent of the American Anti Slavery Society. An international activist for human rights and women’s suffrage, she made her first speech against slavery when she was 16 years old. In 1858 Remond traveled to England to gather support for the abolitionist cause in the United States.
Primary school children from across Manchester find out about Remond as part of the Gallery’s school’s takeover programme. Working in the atmospheric space of the Atheneum they are introduced to this inspirational speaker and asked to reflect on what changes they want to see today. Taking up the mantle of identifying injustice and understanding they can also look to make change.
A moment of pride, empowerment, and encouragement
Venessa spoke of it ‘being an honour to be part of this history making march and cannot wait to see what other wonderful things occur when people join together in unity against injustice’.
“Growing up in the UK there was a significant lack of discussion and education around the success of black people, particularly of black women throughout history. In the education I received black people were simply always slaves and then one day, sometime in contemporary history, we were not. To learn that there were effective, eloquent, well educated, and successful women of colour in Manchester in the1800s hundreds, not least to discover that one of them, Sarah Parker Remond, spoke on the site of Manchester Art Gallery was a moment of pride, empowerment, and encouragement.
I believe that it is important to include and celebrate these women and other strong women of colour in our cultural institutions; to display works of art and literature that discuss their achievements and normalise their beauty. For young people of colour be able to enter a gallery space and visually relate to the paintings that hang on the walls. To see people that look like them. I believe that women such as Sarah Parker Remond; educated, powerful women of colour, serve as beacons of inspiration and aspiration for women of all nationalities but especially for women of colour whose voices, presence, and impact has often been overlooked, downplayed or categorised as worthless and ephemeral.”
Copies of the artwork are available for purchase here.
Image credit: Vanice Scott
A safe place that is part of a healing process
What do people get from volunteering here?
As a volunteer manager, I spend quite a bit of time having tea and coffee with volunteers. Sometimes in groups but often for a one to one chat. This is the part of the job that I love – spending time with people, getting to know who they are, their life experiences, what makes them tick, why they want to volunteer at the gallery and how they feel about the world. Late last year I sat down with a volunteer, Nick, who has been volunteering at the gallery for about 4 years. Nick had started coming to the gallery as a participant on our Health and Wellbeing programme working in partnership with the Creative Living Centre, Prestwich. He was leaving Manchester and so had come to say goodbye. Over coffee Nick shared with me how he felt about Manchester Art Gallery. It was a very moving conversation. At the end I asked if he would be up for sharing his thoughts more widely. Here is what he sent in an email this week:
Meg Parnell, Lifelong Learning and Volunteering Manager
I started attending the gallery around five years ago and took part in mental health and wellbeing classes and then progressed from there to volunteering at MOSI and then found myself back volunteering at the Art Gallery. The main reason I came back to the gallery was because I always felt that it was a safe place for me to be.
I suffer with something called “Complex post traumatic stress disorder” and one of the main symptoms is spending your entire life in a state of heightened and increased hyper vigilance, basically you live life in a constant state of “fight or flight”. It is something that is extremely stressful on the whole body and mind and leaves you exhausted, to say the least. The very basic of tasks, for example walking into a supermarket or travelling on public transport can drain your entire being and leave you in a bewildered state for days.
Time, determination and an awful lot of energy
For me, travelling to the gallery on public transport and interacting with groups of other people was something that was part of my continuing healing process. I was going through some extremely arduous times, having to face up to, confront and overcome the experiences of my childhood. During this time I was frequenting the gallery and I was able to see it as an escape. Yes it was a challenge to use public transport and talk to and with groups but it was also increasing my strength and being able to do that in a safe environment such as the gallery made all the difference to me, in fact it has played a key part in the healing process, which I have learned does not happen overnight, it takes time, determination and an awful lot of energy and is indeed ongoing but the gallery was a safe haven.
When you walk in from the street the ambience is so relaxing and the calm is almost overwhelming at first but something that you soon learn to get used to. All the staff are extremely welcoming and for me being able to interact and take part in the services that were made available through the health and wellbeing team are something that I will always carry with me. I even found myself calling into the gallery for a spot of lunch if was in the area and that is something that I ordinarily would not have done.
Taking part in the gallery is something that boosted my confidence in a way that I could never have imagined.
When suffering from mental health issues one of the most frightening things is that you don’t really know if you will ever get better. When you break a leg or have yourself stitched up the medical staff will always give you an expected recovery time and give or take it usually falls within those parameters. When your head goes pop you don’t have that. All of a sudden almost everything you have known is taken away, you cant eat, you cant sleep, you cant talk, the list goes on but you basically stop functioning and lose sight of all reality, if there is such a thing.
A calm, gentle and safe environment
Providing the services that the gallery offers is like a breath of fresh air, no medication, no pressure, a calm, gentle and safe environment in which to express yourself is vitally important to recovery. You can pop all the pills and read all the leaflets and self help paraphernalia on the planet but they wont make a shred of difference if you have nowhere to express yourself. It’s not about your artistic ability it is about the whole experience provided within such a unique environment.
I could not thank you enough for giving me the opportunity to be part of such environment.
Nick, Volunteer 2015-2019
You can find out more about the gallery’s health and wellbeing programme here.
We aren’t currently taking on any new volunteers, though you can sign up for information here.