An insider's guide to Manchester
Local insider Daisy Culver gives us the lowdown on art in Manchester, from stunning spaces to independent galleries – with tips on where to eat and drink along the way.
Manchester is a city unlike any other. With a proud industrial history, a true northern sense of humour and a world-famous music and art scene, it’s easy to see why it is thought of as the UK’s second city. It’s also the rainiest! But don’t let that bother you.
Peeking out through the clouds on Oxford Road is the Whitworth Art Gallery, a Manchester classic redbrick building waiting to instantly transport you back a century or two. Never mind the scaffolding.
When I enter, I am met with endless smiles, that famous Manchester hospitality. Light beams through the overhead skylight even on a grey day like this.
As I amble through the exhibition rooms, which when I visit are adorned with ancient Andean textiles in rich patterns and a rainbow of hues, I’m feeling quite introspective. Writing this piece has gotten me thinking about what I love about Manchester’s art scene, and I’ve wondered how I could possibly distill a scene so vibrant and ever-changing into a few paragraphs.
As I walk, though, I think what sums it up best is here at the Whitworth. In this moment, ancient fabrics from across the world flank every wall around me, but my first time in these rooms I came up close with a Warhol. I think about the innumerable other pieces of art one might find in these walls and beyond, and how these weave the rich tapestry of Manchester art.
This thought doesn’t keep me for too long, though, as I am distracted by the enormous windows looking out on Whitworth Park. Even despite the weather, this view is gorgeous and if you gaze for long enough, you could almost forget that you’re in the middle of one of Manchester’s busiest main roads.
Almost. A car horn beeps outside and I am back to reality, but I have to say any reality where I can see ancient textiles from around the world under the same roof as a Hogarth sketch and excavated photos from Manchester’s legendary clubbing heyday is a good reality. I make one last sweep of the gallery, and depart.
Where to chill in between galleries
Umbrella up, I am back out on Oxford Road and heading for the city centre.
Before heading to the next gallery, I make sure to stop off at YES. Hiding down a side road, YES could be easy to miss, but you shouldn’t.
A multi-story venue with pizza by the slice, rooftop cocktails and enough room to get your dancing shoes on even if you’ve got two left feet (like me!), YES is new to Manchester but the ‘pink room’ has already played a starring role in countless Instagram feeds. If you’re looking for a cute 'gram and a killer Paloma then look no further.
Exploring Manchester Art Gallery
Boots filled with cocktails and carbs, I am ready to take on Manchester Art Gallery.
Having played host to work by some of the world’s most famous artists, from Leonardo da Vinci to Martin Parr, and with a collection of over 25,000 works, this place is an artist’s haven of Goliathan proportions, and absolutely not to be missed on an artist’s tour of Manchester.
The gallery’s outer shell is an enormous white building with columns at its opening, and upon entry, I am met with a room so richly decorated with lavish frescoes and statues that I feel a bit out of place with my rain-bedraggled hair and trainers.
I move through the galleries and lose myself in the layers of Louise Giovanelli’s paintings, in the swirling, translucent blue and pinks. Each layer of Giavonelli’s work represents another step in a story moving from the Renaissance crucifixion painting she started with, and I find myself transfixed.
Manchester Art Gallery serves as the perfect place to lose yourself in art because it is so densely packed with wonder on every floor, so a full exploration can take hours. Plan accordingly.
One guilty scan of the gift shop later, and with three postcards in hand, I head for the Northern Quarter.
Drinks in the Northern Quarter
Often cited as Manchester’s ‘trendy’ neighbourhood, don’t let the eye-roll of a tag fool you – the Northern Quarter is home to more indie cafés, bars, shops and restaurants than you can shake an Oasis vinyl at.
The best of these, arguably is Common. A trip to Common means something different every day. Queer bingo? Got it. Colouring club? Sure. Craft fairs? Why not!
Like all the best things in Manchester, Common is a melting pot of almost-too-many ideas and a side of chips. Whichever day you go, you’ll find good music, good vibes and good food, making it the perfect place to refuel after a stressful day of looking at some of the best art in the UK.
Independent art in Salford
Another unmissable art pit-stop must be one of the incredible indie art galleries that call Manchester home. Easily missed among Salford’s housing estates, Paradise Works has played host to some truly incredible and exciting art from the region’s most innovative new creators. It’s artist-led and creatively pure, and with just the right amount of millennial pink (remember those Instagrams?).
Seriously, though, if what you’re looking for is some of the most cutting-edge and thought-provoking art in the North of England then look no further than Paradise Works.
If that just isn’t enough for you, then head to Islington Mill. Housed in an old cotton mill in Salford, nowhere better exemplifies the way Manchester’s past and present tangle each other up – with a rich working history, and a wealth of truly vibrant art born from it.
This place is home to over 100 artists, all of whom have freedom and collaboration at the core of their artistic values, meaning there is basically nowhere better to see art that feels truly fresh. Aside from their regular programme of exhibitions, Islington Mill also host their own art academy where artists of any background are encouraged to come and learn new skills, create and collaborate.
Independence and community have always been at the heart and soul of Manchester, from its music to its art, and these are the perfect places to find just that.
Partying at Partisan
Finally, no trip to Manchester would be complete without a visit to Partisan Collective, a multi-format venue which hosts everything from 'zine workshops to feminist movie screenings but is perhaps most popular for its parties.
Here you can dance to the best up-and-coming DJs in Manchester, engage with an interactive art piece or just relax in one of the designated quiet zones if it’s all a bit too much. There’s no better place to experience Manchester’s incredible party scene, as well as some amazing local art, in a safe and free environment.
Community is at the heart of Partisan Collective: the bars are staffed by local volunteers and the walls are regularly decked with art by local artists. They also offer discounts for those on a low income, so everyone has a chance to come down and party, or get arty, at Partisan.
Daisy Culver is a 21-year-old politics student in Manchester. She loves art, and talking about art, and she runs her university's art society just to give her an excuse to do more of that. She is most interested in art inclusivity, and how the art world can shed its elitism and be opened up to people of any background.
Daisy is a winner of our 2019 student writing competition.