At the opening of the Ossie Clark exhibition at Manchester’s Gallery of Costume, Maria Balshaw showed up wearing an original python skin Clark jacket and recounted to a room packed with fashion students how she’d casually picked it up in a vintage shop in Bath while on the hunt for some Vivienne Westwood. If you listened very carefully, you could hear the sound of 100 girl crushes crystalizing beneath layers of Primark polyester as a fleet of adolescent hearts found their champion. It’s hard to imagine Nicholas Serota pulling off a similar stunt.
But that’s the Maria effect. Since she extended her directorship of the university-owned Whitworth Art Gallery to take on the city’s central municipal gallery, Manchester’s arts scene has benefited from a much-needed injection of style. Now the launches, the shows, the profiling – it’s all dialled up to ten. And it’s working. Visitor numbers are up and the Whitworth is about to emerge from a £15 million renovation project with Balshaw at the helm. Last year she received an International Woman’s Day Award in recognition of her cultural contribution to the city and was subsequently named Manchester City Council’s strategic lead for culture.
Part of Balshaw’s strength lies in her knack for making unexpected interventions – seemingly instinctive, surprising and yet perfectly logical – that steer the galleries, and by proxy the city itself, in startling new directions. That might mean surrendering the Whitworth to Marina Abramovitch for a (compulsory) four hour performance piece during Manchester International Festival, reinventing Manchester Art Gallery’s Manchester Gallery as a temporary exhibition space or, most recently, embracing Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos and inviting her to take over the three-storey atrium with an enormous textile installation of a gloriously embellished female reproductive system.
There is a forensic level of calculation that goes into making these decisions, as illustrated by her rationale for selecting Vasconcelos: “In the art world you could do absolutely anything really, you could choose any artist,” she tells Northern Soul, “but the challenge is always to pick the one that tells the story you want to tell.” A feted star of the Venice Biennale, Vasconcelos works with textiles, is concerned with women’s labour and with redefining craft as fine art, all of which are identifiably Manchester stories and ones that Balshaw wants to tell.
“Did you know in the rest of the world, corduroy is known as Manchester cloth? In Australia, the haberdashery floor in a department store is called the Manchester Level because there is such a strong association between Manchester and textiles. And so the whole thing just has much greater resonance. If you really understand what your issues are, they define what choices you make in a really good way.”
And understand she does. In her previous career as an academic, Balshaw published cutting edge research on urban culture, with a focus on the relationships between urban space, class and race. The bigger picture for her is about community building, about civic engagement, and there is the sense that it’s not just the art scene but the whole city that’s in the crosshairs.
A recent collaboration with Selfridges department store saw her curate their Festival of Imagination. In a move unprecedented in the city’s retail sector, Louis Vuitton, Chanel and their friends were ushered into the wings for six weeks while work by Peter Blake, Lucien Freud and Albrecht Durer went on display. A diverse programme of talks featuring the crème de la crème of the city’s creative intelligentsia included appearances from pals, among them Jeanette Winterson, Maxine Peake and Jeremy Deller. The whole thing was weird and wonderful in its apparent aim to punctuate the cycle of consumer desire with moments of genuine artistic reflection.
Was the venture not a bit of a sell-out, a little…outrè? The answer is a resounding no. Far from offering an ivory tower critique on the evils of consumer capitalism, Balshaw is resolutely enthusiastic about the relationship between culture and commerce in the city. “What I’m interested in is people who perhaps before didn’t think that art was for them, now thinking that it is. 80 – 90 per cent of the people we spoke to at Selfridges have never seen the artworks in the Whitworth. And I want them to.
“There’s a commonality of purpose across the art world and the commercial world because what we actually want is to make Manchester a better place to live. There’s no contradiction. There is a hard business argument behind things, of course, but to me it’s all about social democracy, about creating the cities that we want to live in. A better civic life is one that involves more people and that is economically more prosperous.
She talks passionately about people she admires and those who are “changing cultural aspirations” in the city: the envelope pushers, the sharp contemporary thinkers who are guiding their institutions into new directions, whether that’s Fiona Gasper at the Royal Exchange – “a coherent exciting programme”; Gábor Takács-Nagy at Manchester Camerata – “they’re small so they can go places no-one else can go”; or the People’s History Museum – “making a dialogue happen around how people can engage with ideas and with history”.
Balshaw adds: “We’re seeing great changes, whether it’s the Manchester International Festival, Dig the City or Simon Rogan’s restaurant, or even much better coffee – I mean Jesus Christ, until a few years ago you couldn’t get a decent cup of coffee anywhere. Now we have places like Caffeine & Co, all these micro business that are about changing cultural aspiration.”
Resolutely forward thinking, she has no patience with Manchester’s love affair with past glories, having seen it all first hand when she used to come over from Liverpool to go to the Hacienda in the 80s. “The clubs were interesting but the rest of the city was a mess. It’s so much better now. I don’t like it when people look back and say ‘oh it was fantastic then’. Bullshit. It’s just rose-tinted glasses.”
In September the Whitworth will re-open with a lead exhibition solo show by Brit sculptor Cornelia Parker and the city will have a contemporary art space to rival any European city, with vast public spaces, an art garden and a transparent rear section designed to connect it to the community of Moss Side and the surrounding park.
“I hope it will be just the gallery that Manchester needs,” she says. “Manchester wants to be and should be an international city and so it should have an internationally-recognised art gallery in a cultural capital that is not London – and that’s all I want.
“The things that we do, whether it’s making good art happen or bringing interesting artists to the city or making a new building happen, they do last. And I’ll go, you know, I’ll retire and live somewhere else, I don’t know what I’ll do, but stuff continues, the city continues, and that to me is bigger and more interesting than anything else. This stuff continues after us.”
There’s no doubt that she will go, eventually. It’s only a matter of time before a creative directorship at a larger, more established institution beckons. In the meantime, we’re lucky to have her. What she’ll leave in her wake is a whole lot of substance and a whole lot of style.