Manchester Art Gallery

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 ( 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.

Sparking: Jane Benson and William Etty 

As one of the Gallery’s curators of historic art I often joke that I’m not used to working with living artists. But I’m going to have to get a new feeble witticism to fall back on, as in our re-imagining of the Gallery this is changing. 

In October 2019 I was honoured to join my colleagues on a trip to the Manchester Contemporary Art Fair, held at Manchester Central. Our mission was to choose a work or works for the Gallery’s collection. This rare opportunity came thanks to the Manchester Contemporary Art FundEvery one of these generous individuals puts some money in the pot annually, and their city gains a work of art. My role was to ensure that what we chose would not gently settle into the collection but would create sparks in its collision with the historic works. 

Have a walk through the historic galleries and you’ll hear one of the works we chose before you see it. It’s Jane Benson’s Toothache (Sameeha Elwan) – a paper sculpture, with sound.  


Jane meticulously wrote out a short story by Sameeha Elwan, a writer and poet living in Palestine, then cut out the words, apart from the syllables that form the sounds ‘do re mi fa sol la ti do’. She describes this process as ‘searching for the tone of exile, and for the potential music of Elwan’s prose’. She collaborated with New-York based mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn, who sings the notes excavated from the story. The story, Toothache in Gaza, tells of the difficulties in obtaining even simple things such as dental treatment when one is designated as ‘stateless’. 


It can be that making a political point with art is heavy going, but the lightness of this work is what draws people in: Hai-Ting’s pure notes resonate through the gallery, and stay with you as you move past our oil painting collection. William Etty’s The Sirens and Ulysses hangs nearby. This macabre early Victorian painting foregrounds the decaying corpses of men who did not survive a dangerous sea journey. Gorgeous singing had drawn them to their death. Viewing this painting with the sound of contemporary statelessness echoing in my ears makes those sparks fly for me.  

Hannah Williamson, Curator: Fine Art 


One response to “Re-imagining Manchester Art Gallery”

  1. Sharon hanrahan says:

    Beautiful, this painting has captured so much, I have to keep coming back to it. what amazing talent, thank you for sharing this with us.

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