Q&A: Maria Balshaw, director of the Whitworth

Five months after winning the Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year, the director of the Whitworth, Manchester, reflects on a transformative year and shares some tips for prospective applicants.

Maria Balshaw, director of the Whitworth, accepting the Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year © Tim Whitby/Getty Images

Maria Balshaw, director of the Whitworth, accepting the Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year


© Tim Whitby/Getty Images

Why did you decide to apply for Museum of the Year?

This was our special year. The Whitworth was founded for the perpetual gratification of the people of Manchester; our gallery team and architects had been working on transforming our gallery spaces and connecting us back to our park and local communities with the capital project for the last seven years.

We reopened on Valentine's Day 2015 and welcomed nearly 20,000 visitors. The reopening weekend programme included a graphene firework display by Cornelia Parker, talks from Jeanette Winterson and performances in the new art garden, including a live performance from the Hallè Youth Choir.

During the closure, the Whitworth popped up all across the city with family activities in supermarkets, libraries and concert halls, adult workshops and live music in pubs, and even a pop-up gallery in Selfridges.

What were the highlights and challenges of your Museum of the Year​ campaign?

We really loved creating a strong communications campaign around the prize (particularly around social media), and we were also able to plan, programme and deliver a series of events and activities that engaged our visitors in the process: we ran family activities, included activities within our schools and learning sessions, worked directly with visitors in the gallery and staged a celebratory garden party – plus it was great to inspire Johnny Marr, a Manchester legend, to support us vocally in the Guardian.

The only challenge was to script and direct the promotional film in such a short time period – however the challenge proved extremely fruitful as we all really loved the final film and thought it showcased what we do at the Whitworth beautifully. It also gave our staff a platform to talk about their incredible achievements over the last year and have it viewed by lots of people on the Art Fund's website and social media, and the BBC.

What impact has winning Museum of the Year had on the Whitworth?

Our visitor figures keep rising. We have more than doubled our annual visitor figures in the first nine months – and we have now welcomed 390,000 visitors! We always knew we were going to have a busy year, but the publicity from the Museum of the Year prize gave us a definite spike in visits after we won and the ongoing interest in what we are doing has meant the high numbers just keep rising. The brilliant media coverage the Art Fund gave us put the gallery back in the spotlight, five months after its reopening.

How are you planning on using the prize money?

We're supporting a youth festival in the park, developed by our Circuit young programmers, to coincide with the installation of a major new outdoor sculpture by Anya Gallaccio. We're expanding the display areas in our Collections Centre to keep up with overwhelming public demand to see and work with our collection. And we're running a dedicated Museum of the Year programme of extraordinary after hours and weekend events from January to July, with its own dedicated social media campaign, inspired by the social media campaign we ran to help win Museum of the Year.

If you could give one piece of advice to museums applying for the Prize, what would it be?

We weren’t sure if we could pull off applying so soon after reopening. The judges were very clear that what mattered was not the bricks and mortar alone, but the bold and engaging work we do in our new building. So know about what makes you really special and be bold and brave in your application.

Museum of the Year applications are open until 10 February. Find out how to apply.

Venue details

The Whitworth The University Of Manchester, Oxford Road Greater Manchester M15 6ER 0161 275 7450 www.manchester.ac.uk/whitworth

Entry details

Free to all
Offers with National Art Pass

Daily, 10am - 5pm (Thu until 9pm) Closed 24, 25, 26 Dec and 1 Jan

Tags: Museums and galleriesmuseum-of-the-yearSupporting museums