Major gallery exhibitions tend to have one artist’s name over the door. Right now, at The Whitworth in Manchester, that name is Suzanne Lacy.

But this is exhibition is so much more than one person.

There’s no self-important ego of the artist on display here. That’s because Lacy has spent decades actively seeking out and including people in the process of creating artwork.

Lacy brought youths in Oakland, California into dialogue with police officers. She invited residents along the Irish/Northern Irish border to debate what their future looks like, and to create/perform a moving, living yellow line along the frontier. She invited south Asian and white communities in Pendle, Lancashire to sing together in an old mill. It’s those people’s faces, experiences and emotions that are on display in What Kind of City?

A buzzword in cultural realms over the last decade or so has been ‘participation’, that is the process of including the public, regular people, in the process of creating something – a play, an exhibition, an artwork. There’s been lots of experimenting with how galleries might ‘co-create’ or ‘co-curate’, handing over some curatorial power to others. The act of being involved in the process of art, rather than simply looking at it, is something dear to the heart of Suzanne Lacy and to The Whitworth, that we as citizens are active participants in culture, not simply viewers of it.

Indeed, The Whitworth seeks to activate this exhibition with a major public programme – a series of workshops that will bring together local constituents, culminating in a convening with city leaders where participants will present their ideas to those with power, to reimagine and shape post-pandemic Manchester. And so, the exhibition is much more than a display. It is the start of a question: what kind of city do we want to live in?

The Roof is on Fire. What Kind of City? by Suzanne Levy,With so many voices and experiences on display, this exhibition is a rallying cry for inclusion. For anyone who thinks of participatory practice as something new, here is the evidence to show that the Lacy has been doing it for decades, again and again.

On the day I visit (the press preview), I’m presented to Lacy and, before I know it, she deflects the attention away from herself, almost instantly introducing me to someone from one of her recent projects. This is someone who thrives on bringing people together, linking experiences and stories. For all her successes, and there are plenty after a lengthy and broad career, this isn’t someone who wants to bask in the limelight of sycophantic art fans. Instead, she seems to care about connections. And it’s easy to see that those connections, those conversations, are where the answers to what kind of city we want to live in lie.

However, for an exhibition that advocates inclusivity, there are some issues with The Whitworth’s activation of these works, particularly around accessing works that invite us to watch, to look, and to actively listen.

The Circle and the Square_Brierfield Edit WIDE_2.1.1For the most part, the videos are not subtitled or signed and there are no printed transcripts of the words spoken available to read. Headphones are attached to cables that aren’t long enough to get one’s head far enough back to view some screens, and in one room with no lighting, black headphones have been hung against a black wall, making them almost impossible to locate. Some artworks are labelled in one gallery, when the work appears in a completely different space. There’s no map or plan to help orient the visitor. And an age-old art gallery problem persists, that of labels being printed in small font size, a thin typeface, difficult to read and poorly located for reading. In some places, wheelchair users would have to move furniture out of the way to get close enough to read interpretive text.

The Roof Is on FireWith no alternative formats available, the exhibition is almost entirely inaccessible to blind and partially sighted visitors and to visitors who are hard of hearing or d/Deaf.

This all seems at odds with what else I know of The Whitworth, a recently refurbished building that once declared an intention to keep accessibility at its heart.

The gallery told Northern Soul: “Accessibility is incredibly important to both The Whitworth and Suzanne Lacy and we’ve worked to make the exhibition inclusive and accessible, though we’re aware there is always work to be done.

“In terms of the transcriptions of the film works, these were still in production for the press day due to editing delays and are now in place for the public opening. The Whitworth produces transcriptions when subtitles are not possible.”

Code 33 Emergency Clear the Air_5.2MBWith an understanding that some of these issues were in hand, I visited the exhibition a week later, only to find rather embarrassed front-of-house staff who told me transcripts weren’t in place yet.

It would be unfair to become distracted too far from the question this exhibition asks of visitors, though – what kind of city do we want to create? There’s ample inspiration here for how we might reimagine urban life and I left the exhibition (twice) with 100 ideas running through my mind about the power of conversations and connections to stimulate change.

Perhaps a good starting point would be a city where art and culture is accessible to everyone.

By Steve Slack


What Kind of City? by Suzanne Levy is at The Whitworth in Manchester until April 10, 2022. For more information, click here.