Re-imagining Manchester Art Gallery
This new hang is part of our ‘show-our-working’ approach to the Gallery rethink. Over the coming years we will be working with a group of co-curators whose lives have been affected by migration to completely rethink the space. In the interim we need to create an environment which helps start conversations on the subject of migration and travel, that’s less heavy-Imperialist-Victoriana in its aesthetic. Our newest acquisition Green Field by Kate Davies is the centrepiece of the new hang, the look of which is inspired by the School of Integration bright colour vibe. This will be the space where gallery staff will teach a module of the In Place of War (https://www.inplaceofwar.net/) course this autumn (pandemic permitting). This is a learning programme for creative entrepreneurs affected by migration to help them to develop their practice. Our pair of Canaletto paintings are also back on display, and they look lovely against the pale purple wall colour.
The element of the new hang that I am most attached to is probably the work by Jean Spencer, 4 part painting (Nuremberg). It was given to the gallery by the artist’s family in 2002, a few years after Spencer had died (in 1998). The Gallery was just reopening after a four-year closure for redevelopment and expansion. Spencer’s paintings were gratefully received, but had not been factored in to the long-planned opening displays, and for a few years they seem to have been forgotten about. I say ‘seem’ to have been forgotten about, because I have had my eye on them for a while now. My reason is personal – I met Spencer the year before she died. It was my first volunteering stint at a gallery, spent at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge. Helping Jean to install her work set me on a museums and galleries career path for life.
I didn’t know this in 1997, but Spencer was a member of the collective Countervail. The title was chosen by this group of women artists in 1990 as a word that defies definition. For example, it can mean the same as counterbalance, but is also used in the sense of fighting against, or acting with equal power. The group resisted the pressure of an easy label. Spencer thought of a picture as a space of countervailing energies, of power sharing, and of struggle. She described her colours as fighting against the system which divides them. For me, the colour boundaries serve as a metaphor for the borders of nation states. Spencer herself was an internationalist, exhibiting more in Europe than in her native Britain. She took part in a group show in Nuremberg in 1989, which is why this work has its title.
Written by Hannah Williamson, Curator: Fine Art