Even if you didn’t go to Sonia Boyce’s exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery last year, you’ll probably remember the media storm which preceded it.
Here’s a reminder, just in case.
The gallery invited Ms Boyce to hold a ‘takeover’ in January. These are regular events where an artist is invited to intervene in the permanent collection in some way.
She invited a group of drag artists to perform “in a non-binary way” to address questions of sexuality, gender and race raised by some of the paintings in the gallery.
The event was captured on film, in photography and sound and was used to make a work which was shown for the first time at her exhibition later in the year.
But it wasn’t this which caused the media storm.
The most controversial part of the takeover was when a painting by JW Waterhouse, Hylas and the Nymphs, was removed and replaced by a temporary space “to prompt conversations” about the ways in which museums make decisions about what is displayed.
Members of the public were invited to stick post-it notes around a notice with their comments.
According to Ms Boyce and Manchester Art Gallery staff, taking the picture down wasn’t a publicity stunt to publicise her exhibition. It was about starting a discussion, not provoking a media storm. But that’s exactly what it did.
The response to Nymphgate as it became known (Watergate would have been better but it had already been taken) was overwhelmingly negative.
What happened can be summarised as follows:
Manchester Art Gallery: “We are removing Hylas and the Nymphs temporarily to prompt discussion”. People of Manchester (and elsewhere): “Put it back”.
So a week later they did, to the disappointment of those who clearly find the painting offensive or politically unacceptable.
The people who run Manchester Art Gallery may have been accused of being out of touch with the public and of allowing their own political agendas to take priority over their professional duties, but they can’t be accused of cowardice.
Because next month another takeover is taking place which is set to challenge orthodox views of what Manchester Art Gallery should look like.
In Old Tools >New Masters ≠New Futures (it’s a formula), Contact Theatre and Young Identity, a Manchester-based collective of young spoken word artists, musicians, actors, rappers/MC’s, are joining forces set to take over Manchester Art Gallery to explore what it means to decolonise and decentralise public culture.
Over four nights, they will share their ideas and their voices on what a post-colonial future looks like through their promenade performance and alternative gallery tour.
They will be asking vital questions about our collections, our buildings and culture. Who owns it? Who decides what it should be called? And who is it really for?
At each performance, the company will take different audience groups on their own tailored made and alternative gallery tour to question, celebrate, shed a spotlight on and ultimately question what is public art.
The piece they will be performing will invite audiences to think differently, ask questions and ‘dismantle the gallery experience’.
Director Tunde Adefioye says he’s not aiming to be controversial but wants ‘a deep conversation’ about who has power, how young people of colour can take up space in the gallery and on the board and why neither Manchester Art Gallery’s director nor the curators are from diverse backgrounds – because only then can the artworks on display reflect the entire community.
The challenge for the young people involved in the takeover won’t be to convince the people who run Manchester Art Gallery. They are broadly sympathetic.
Director Alistair Hudson, who took up his post a few days after Nymphgate, wants to shake things up at the gallery too.
He wants the gallery to be ‘useful’ rather than a place for the quiet contemplation of great works of art and believes that it should reflect the diversity of our communities.
What will be more challenging, if Nymphgate is anything to go by, will be to change public opinion. Because Manchester Art Gallery and its works of art belong to the people of Manchester. They are the ones who should decide what it should look like.
Old Tools >New Masters ≠New Futures
Manchester Art Gallery
Wednesday 12th June – Sunday 15th June 2019 (not Saturday)