Art matters: where were the leaders? Report on the Art Galleries Committee, 17 February

Jackie Haynes of Climate Emergency Manchester’s “Team SF” watched the meeting of the Manchester City Council  Art Galleries Committee on 17th February, and came away underwhelmed…

Manchester City Council’s annual Art Galleries Committee meeting was a 15 minute discussion sandwiched between the statutory protocol of appeals, interests and minutes and the noting of reports and a policy revision.

Notably absent from the meeting from a climate perspective was the Executive Member for Environment, Planning and Transport and the Council Leader. Also absent was any explicit mention of climate emergency, despite it featuring in the Manchester City Galleries’ report and revenue budget 2021/22 tables, which might build up an expectation for anyone looking out for updates:

Manchester Art Gallery has signed up with Culture Declares to declare a Climate Emergency and commit to radical action in relation to its own carbon footprint.

The gallery is currently reviewing its policy and approach to making the physical gallery green and working towards being carbon neutral – focusing on exhibitions, loans, business travel, energy use, cafe, retail and events. We encourage social responsibility through community and stakeholder involvement, supporting community climate champions and we aim to be a public platform for climate activism as a respected and trusted educational organisation promoting public dialogue and raising awareness.

Is it impossible for citizens to overstate the importance of the Director-level push for necessary legislation for system changes for climate justice, from powerful positions within our public institutions? The expectation set up by this statement is addressed, however, within the report with references to climate action at Platt Hall and Climate Justice at Manchester Art Gallery respectively:

120 people have attended seven Keep Connected sessions to date, which are fast becoming an established local event, developing an identity for the Hall as neighbourhood convener, bringing people and organisations together, and allowing conversations and connections to emerge. Topics have included principles for Platt Hall, collective anti-racism, and local heritage. Planned events include a funding application workshop and sessions focused on climate action and young people. The emergent windows programme is also working to build a sense of connectedness locally. Displays have included an anti-racism display co-ordinated with local Take the Knee group (June-July 2020), TSAP@PlattHall2020, a commission from local arts collective the Terrace Square Artists Project (July-September) and Message to the Neighbourhood, a growing collection of observations, tips and ideas for health and wellbeing from local residents (October-January).

Climate Justice, opening winter 2021, is our second collection gallery to be redisplayed and will focus on the climate emergency. Curators have been working alongside a group of climate activists to select works from the Gallery’s collection to be displayed. They are asking what we can learn from history, what we want our city and lives to be like in the future and how we can help each other with anxiety when dealing with the climate crisis. This thematic gallery will be a place for collective imagination, learning and action.

I admit my limitation in adopting a critical distance to these committed examples, due to being involved with both as a local resident and artist. I am aware of the efforts of both institutions in their respective aims and feel hopeful for good outcomes. This is dependent on them being resourced with intent to deliver over an extended time-frame, for the duration of the Climate Emergency Declaration, for instance.

Cllr Akbar sought reassurance for his Rusholme constituents from Director of Manchester City Galleries, Alastair Hudson, who confirmed that there will be no budgetary impact on Platt Hall’s objectives, which remain focused on communities around it. Furthermore, Platt Hall is envisioned as ‘a ground-breaking model, on how you can get art and culture to work in people’s daily lives on daily basis… not about making another big glamourous museum, but about the evolution of that building, using what we’ve got and making the best of use of those resources.’ This communicates the sense of urgency and an efficiency principle of using what already belongs to the public to good effect.

Cllr Murphy (Hulme) made the point that Manchester Art Gallery’s online resource had proved invaluable in communicating to people that it was still there and will be when the pandemic ends. It is important to audibly carry the commitment to the climate emergency declaration along with this idea of longevity too.

The restorative role of cultural institutions for mental health, well-being, schools’ aspirations and learning was emphasised by both Alistair Hudson and Cllr Richards (Longsight) and is exemplified in Manchester Art Gallery’s Statement of Purpose:

the challenge – to make the most of the unique richness of a collection that is full of surprises and unexpected discoveries, to safeguard this richness for the future, while also maintaining a responsible and ethical approach to custodianship in the context of limited resources.

While it’s correct to have intentions stated and publicly distributed in written documents, a responsible and ethical approach also requires the clear communication of action. The steps being taken towards climate justice and scrutiny of the means to make this a reality, need to be conspicuously and urgently reiterated at every opportunity and on every level.

The meeting can be viewed here: https://vimeo.com/509986438

If you want to get involved in “Team SF” please email chloe@climateemergencymanchester.net

Meanwhile, please write to your three councillors and to Council leader Richard Leese asking them to bring the strongest possible recommendations for the overhaul of the Council’s scrutiny processes to the Wednesday 31st March meeting of full Council.

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