Northern art renaissance as treasures find homes

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The Independent Online

For decades, the art treasures of northern England have been too numerous and precious to exhibit in the draughty, underfunded, undervisited 19th-century galleries that have become a sad contrast to London's vast new spaces. But this week, two important openings will underline the renaissance of the region's arts scene.

For decades, the art treasures of northern England have been too numerous and precious to exhibit in the draughty, underfunded, undervisited 19th-century galleries that have become a sad contrast to London's vast new spaces. But this week, two important openings will underline the renaissance of the region's arts scene.

Amid final preparations for the relaunch of Manchester city art gallery with a £35m extension, Liverpool's Walker art gallery – the self-proclaimed National Gallery of the North – reopens on Thursday after a £4m overhaul to provide a fitting venue for one of the finest art collections in Britain.

Liverpool has recovered what some consider to be its most exquisite treasure, the only signed work of Simone Martini, Christ discovered in the Temple. It was so adored by the National Gallery's former director Neil MacGregorthat it hung alone in Room 1 there while on loan. Meanwhile, Manchester will have the light-sensitive conditions to exhibit its entire collection of 37 Turner watercolours for the first time when it reopens, double the size, in May.

The North's new-found artistic self-confidence – further underlined by the opening of the £9m Gallery Oldham next Sunday – began when Newcastle upon Tyne's Laing gallery increased visitor numbers by popularising art, to the dismay of many traditionalists, in the early 1990s. The process has been accelerated by lottery-funded creations.

Manchester, which has joined its original 1828 gallery building to the 1837 Athenaeum next door with a stone extension, borrows ideas from the £21m lottery-funded Walsall gallery in the West Midlands, where first-year attendances of 250,000 were way above expectations. Both Manchester and Liverpool have also watched the Lowry in Salford hit its 770,000 first-year target in eight months. Sheffield's £46m Millennium Galleries achieved half its annual target in two months.

By contrast, Liverpool's Walker, with its vast collection bought by city merchants as a monument to civic pride in the Empire's second city, had lain dormant. The Walker accommodates Liverpool's municipal library, an arrangement in place since the Blitz, and the 1930s mock-Victorian extension has been little used, although it did come in handy for ration-book administration during the Second World War – not quite what the brewer Sir Andrew Walker had in mind.

The refurbishment creates three new 20th-century galleries and enables a number of delights to be pulled out of storage, including 18 chalk drawings by George Romney for an opening exhibition on the 18th-century British portraitist and caricaturist.

But the real eye-catcher is the first exhibition of Sir Paul McCartney's work, opening in May and demonstrating the Walker's populist tactics. It is using the show to entice gallery-goers into a Turner exhibition in the next-door gallery, rather than the other way around.

"There is a professional acknowledgement that we must popularise what we do and that there is nothing wrong with young people making a noise, in art galleries," said David Fleming, the new director of National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside, who wants 250,000 people a year to visit and an increase to 750,000 in the long run.

Manchester will also seek new audiences with its "education suite", including interactive space. A survey taken before its closure, four years ago, showed the 250,000 annual visitors to be dominated by a loyal core of 30,000 who came several times. "Ordinary" people were either intimidated by the neo-Classical building or did not know what it was.

The reincarnated gallery is organised to show how municipal leaders bought art as a demonstration to London that a Victorian city such as Manchester, known for industrial toil, could be sophisticated.

"Nobody thought, when the Laing was being developed, that more Geordies would go to art galleries than anyone else." Dr Fleming said. "The quality of what we have outside London is difficult to get across to government."

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