Established nearly 200 years ago to support the design needs of the Industrial Revolution, Manchester School of Art has long been an influential force in the art world. The second oldest school in the country and now based at Manchester Metropolitan University, it helps make the city a magnet for young designers across fashion, architecture, crafts, visual and conceptual art. Famous alumni include L.S. Lowry, Sarah Burton, Liam Spencer, Thomas Heatherwick and Peter Saville.
Alongside the big hitters in Manchester’s art world – Manchester Art Gallery, the Whitworth, The Lowry and (the soon to open) HOME – there are a host of smaller contemporary galleries doing their bit for the city’s art scene. Castlefield Gallery is arguably the most respected, an artist-run space that has dominated contemporary art in the city for 30 years and runs an exhibition programme of international relevance as well as interesting talks and events for art lovers. Many hugely influential artists (and even a Turner Prize-winner or two) were exhibited there early in their careers, which demonstrates how vital such vibrant smaller galleries are to the country’s art ecosystem.
This saturation of the city with artists and creative types has resulted in a healthy art culture, with small galleries, artist studios and pop-up exhibitions turning up all over, but particularly in the ex-industrial spaces of Ancoats, Salford, Levenshulme and other outlying neighbourhoods where artists can live and work cheaply. Artist studios such as Bankley, Rogue, Islington Mill, PS Mirabel and AWOL provide much-needed space for practicing artists, and most also host small gallery spaces or open studio days where visitors can meet the artists and discuss their work.
The Manchester Craft and Design Centre on Oak Street in the Northern Quarter hosts spaces used to produce and sell crafts including jewellery, pottery, papercraft, photography and textiles, mounts an interesting exhibition and events programme and also possesses a really first rate café (their cakes are legendary.)
Also worth recommending to people interested in seeing contemporary art off the beaten path are Bureau in Spinningfields; and Kraak gallery and the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art in the Northern Quarter. Many are involved in festivals such as the Asia Triennial, a big festival of Asian art that takes over the city every three years, and the excellentManchester International Festival, whose art programme is a real strength.
Most of the above spaces don’t specialise in selling art, but art buyers visiting Manchester shouldn’t despair. The city’s art market is relatively young, but has seen great improvement in recent years. Every September the Buy Art Fair & Manchester Contemporary bring artists, art dealers and art buyers together from far and wide. The Great Northern Contemporary Craft Fair does a similar thing for craftspeople every October, and December sees a series of craft fairs invade the city, popping up everywhere from the Town Hall to the Royal Exchange Theatre to Islington Mill. Holiday sparkle and fabulous gifts are never too far away.