My questions for Manchester Art Gallery

All right, Manchester Art Gallery, seems like you want a discussion after all. I’ll give you a chance.

For anyone unfamiliar with my current bugbear, so far this year I’ve been mostly complaining about Manchester Art Gallery and their stupid stunt to remove a beloved by the people of Manchester, in order to – so they claim – start a conversation. I am amongst the large majority of respondents who opposed to it. I wrote at length about my issues here; I won’t go over this again, but the TLDR version is that, at best, the Gallery staff showed no interest in any views different to their own, and, at worst, this was testing the water to see how far they could go with culture policing. But that’s old news now. What riled me more was their behaviour after they made (were forced into?) the decision to restore the painting. After thanking everyone for Contributing To The Debate™, they spent a month behaving like nothing had happened, then proceeded to do a series of interviews and articles that pretty much dismissed all the opposition as online abuse. Most suspiciously, they promised release information shortly about a panel debate that would invite speakers with a range of views. Three months later, with not a peep from the gallery about this, suspicion grew they decided asking other people for their opinions was a mistake and they hoped they could drop the debate quietly without anyone noticing.

But wait. On the 17th May, Manchester Art Gallery had their debate after all. The kept their promise. Well, some of it. Releasing information about the debate three months after it was originally announcing isn’t exactly a time-frame I’d call “shortly”. As for the wide range of views – not a chance. The panel was Alistair Hudson, the director of the gallery, and Clare Gannaway, the curator who championed the removal. They wanted to include a third panellist, Ellen Mara De Wachter, who wrote a, shall I say, “interesting” takes on this stunt, rebranding what most of use consider to be cultural authoritarism as “curatorial activism“, but she had to cancel. Regardless, this is a far cry from their original commitment to invite “inviting speakers with a broad spectrum of opinions”, and it didn’t exactly fill me with confidence that they believe in open debate.

However, someone from Manchester Art Gallery got back to me on Twitter, who said “There were some strong critical opinions aired during the discussion, it was frank, forthright and honest.” They also say they were reviewing a film of the event which would be posted online as soon as they could. It’s been three weeks since the debate now, and this video still isn’t online (at least, not that I could find on either their website or any of the social media accounts), but whatever, I can wait. What I think will be fair is to draw up some questions in advance to get some sort of objective measure of how open they are. Obviously neither I nor they have control over what questions they are asked, but I will be keeping an eye on these topics as they come up. I will think more of Manchester Art Gallery if they go out of their way to answer these; I will think less if they evade these topics as they come up.

Here are the questions I’m hoping were addressed during the debate:

  1. How long did they originally intend to remove the painting?
  2. What were their intentions when they said they hoped the painted would be “contextualised quite differently” when restored?
  3. Did they take the decision to restore the painting after a week, or did Manchester City Council threaten to overrule them?
  4. Do they concede that public opinion was overwhelmingly not on their side?
  5. Do they consider it appropriate to preside over a debate whilst taking sides so obviously?
  6. How much of the online criticism do they accept as valid and how much are they dismissing as ill-informed or abusive?
  7. Do they stand by their (implied) claims that the painting is harmful? (The claim I particularly have in mind is the parallels they attempted to draw between the painting and the sex party at the President’s Club that was in the news at the time.)
  8. What, if anything, do they have to say to those supporters of Me Too who complained this move devalued the campaign?
  9. Does it trouble them that the takedown was likened to the Degenerate Art exhibition of Nazi Germany?
  10. Will they ever give a platform to someone who opposes their actions?

These are all genuine questions, by the way. I am not intending this to be a list of accusations – there are reasonable answers to all of these. It’ll be easier if they can show some humility; harder if they double down with more of the same.

I shall return as and when I have a debate to watch. Until then, happy waiting.

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