Profile: Maria Balshaw on art, change – & the emperor’s new clothes

Kate Feld
The Whitworth and Manchester Gallery's Maria Balshaw

The woman responsible for changing Manchester’s art scene opens up about life at the helm of two of its flagship galleries.

Maria Balshaw is a busy woman. Our interview had to be scheduled several weeks ahead; in the intervening period she travelled to exhibitions in Scotland and Portugal, then on to London to talk to culture secretary Maria Miller about getting more women on the boards of arts organisations. Then, of course, there’s the fact that she’s doing two jobs. In 2011 she became joint director of the Manchester City Galleries and the Whitworth Art Gallery; an unprecedented appointment that ushered in a new era of cultural cooperation between the University of Manchester and the city – and a new clarity of purpose for both institutions. An International Woman’s Day Award at the Town Hall earlier this year, in recognition of her cultural contribution to the city, felt like tacit acknowledgement of just how much she has achieved.

“The first nine months felt like a kind of sprint; running from one place to another, juggling intensively,” Balshaw recalled during a conversation in her art gallery office, a compact space brightened up by a few striking artworks. “But I was experienced enough from my time at the Whitworth to know that you can’t keep just working faster, so once I got under the skin of the city galleries I have been working on working differently.” A key part of her success is figuring out how to help the two organisations work more closely, sharing services and equipment. She is not just an artistic director but also the leader of two large and complicated organisations and much rests on her ability to delegate intelligently, recognise what isn’t working, and change things accordingly.

Balshaw, 43, lives in Rusholme with her partner, Manchester Museum Director Nick Merriman, and their four teenage children. She stands out at art openings and events, a compact figure with her trademark close-cropped silver hair and arresting sartorial style. Balshaw left a successful academic career after being headhunted to lead the Whitworth in 2006; that academic background has surely stood her in good stead navigating the vertiginous upper slopes of the international art world and the endless politicking involved in running a public art institution. Since then, she has shored up the gallery’s strengths – its tremendous textiles and watercolour collections, its strong ties with academia – and combined these with a new attention to contemporary art and a willingness to take risks. Under her watch, exhibitions at the Whitworth suddenly felt relevant. A show of wallpaper designs in 2010 was subversive and intelligent. A major Mary Kelly retrospective, that Marina Abramović commission for Manchester International Festival, and the recent Jane and Louise Wilson exhibition were all unquestionably of international significance. The audiences followed the programme: in her first five years, annual visitors to the gallery doubled from 80,000 to 170,000.

People shouldn’t like everything. We need to provoke discussion.

Manchester Art Gallery has lately become infused with a similar energy. As unlikely as it once might have seemed, the city’s once rather staid art flagship is becoming cool. Recent exhibitions – the paper art survey The First Cut (unmissable, inspiring) and Raqib Shaw (ambitious, daring) – combine with lively events (‘zine fairs, ‘happenings’ for babies, the hip Thursday Lates series). And there is more on the horizon: the return of seminal art instruction manual Do It for Manchester International Festival this summer, followed by exhibitions from Jeremy Deller and Grayson Perry. And next summer, the Whitworth re-opens after a £12 million renovation and extension with a show from Cornelia Parker.

The new world order at Manchester Art Gallery hasn’t proven universally popular. Last spring, the decision to replace the venue’s Manchester Gallery with contemporary exhibitions ruffled a few feathers. “It got a very satisfying number of ‘that’s just the Emperor’s new clothes’ letters, and that’s fine. People shouldn’t like everything,” Balshaw said. “And we need to provoke discussion.”

She is clearly not afraid of controversy. But down at the core of what she does, Balshaw’s passion for art is immediately evident. To understand it you only have to see her, launching into a vivid description of the work of Portuguese feminist artist Joana Vasconcelos, who uses everyday objects to create large-scale sculptural works that are both beautiful and meaningful; or explaining the significance of Thomas Horsfall’s public-spirited and didactic Art Museum in Ancoats, a fascinating chapter in the city’s history that will be explored in the next Manchester Gallery installation.

“For the last five years in Manchester, we’ve consistently built up the level of risk that we take and the level of excitement around the projects that we’ve done. Now the people that approach us are leading players on the international stage,” Balshaw said. “We really are considered to be a force in the visual arts. Whether we’re working with artists on the other side of the world or ones who are based in our own city, we’re doing things that are getting national and international notice.” And why do so many artists and institutions want to work with Manchester? “We are friendly and fun to work with as well as incredibly rigorous about the work that we do,” she says. Which seems to sum up the Balshaw approach very well. Let’s hope the city can hold on to her for a long time.

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