Involving the Public with the Private Life of Art

Manchester Art Gallery’s recent attempt to bring the public into the gallery space and explore their collection of publicly owned sculpture is the first step in the right direction of making art more accessible to everyone. MAG owns over 500 sculptures, with less than 3% on display until now, with the opening of their stored collection and archival material in their Out of the Crate exhibition. They have now put over 25% of their extensive collection into a free exhibition, opening a wealth of art up to the community.

MAG is a publicly owned gallery, meaning that it is part of Manchester City Council, and has been since 1882. The gallery opened in 1823 as the Royal Manchester Institution for the Promotion of Literature, Science and the Arts, an educational institution that all members of the community would have access to, as a place to engage with creativity, imagination and productivity. Since its adoption into the council it has been free and open to all, and describes itself as a “place of civic thinking and public imagination”.

Room 1 of Out of the Crate focuses on the private life of the pieces in the collection. There are around 60 pieces on display, organised by size, material or weight, rather than a curatorial theme or chronology. It is designed to invoke a gallery store-room, giving the public rare insight into the behind the scenes life of sculpture, and examining the challenges of storing and conserving a collection like this.

Moving through to Room 2, visitors to the gallery are greeted by a changing selection of around 10-15 pieces currently under investigation. These sculptures will be selected for having little known about them, being in poor condition, or for having been off display for a long time and therefore being in need of new research. This portion of the exhibition opens the research process up to the public, thus inviting them into the more academic side of galleries that is usually hidden away. The main aim of this room is to consider how a public gallery and those who visit it care for and use pieces in its collection.

The final room of the exhibition is curated in partnership with the Making Conversation group. This group runs workshops with artists and gallery staff to open up conversations around contemporary issues, concerns and ideas. With Room 3 they are aiming to bring workshop-level discussion to the gallery space on an everyday basis. In their efforts to do this, the pieces in this room have been selected for their ability to experiment with how best a gallery can facilitate such conversations, thus brining the private experience of a gallery into a community space where people can share and develop ideas.

I strongly support what MAG are doing with Out of the Crate and believe that more galleries, especially public ones, should follow suit. This art is publicly owned, and its inaccessibility is completely unfair. It is the responsibility of galleries to take the initiative to bring the art to the people, since deeply entrenched issues relating to social class and access to academia, amongst others, prevent the people from going to the art. It is only a positive thing that MAG are taking steps in the right direction to make the gallery space more accessible by opening up the curatorial and research processes to the public, and I can only applaud that.

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