As in most cities of its size, Manc has its fair share of multi-million-pound museums that draw huge exhibitions from big-name artists. But if you’re more into your grassroots stuff, the city also boasts a thriving DIY art scene fuelled by local up-and-comers, from Mariel Osborn to Caroline Dowsett, who operate out of renovated red-brick mills and tucked-away studios (occasionally open to the public).
Whatever you’re after, these art galleries in Manchester make for some of the very best places to catch work from new and established artists in the UK. And if you’re still feeling that culture itch after all that, panic not. Manchester is home to all manner of brilliant museums, theatres, comedy clubs and music venues that brim with history and personality.
Best art galleries in Manchester
‘Gathering of strangers’ reads the neon lights above the Whitworth Art Gallery, and it’s this ethereal, sublime atmosphere that carries throughout the venue. Following a major refurbishment, and extending through its existing space into Whitworth Park itself, walls are replaced with floor-to-ceiling windows, while the café now seemingly levitates among the trees. It all helps to frame the artwork, varied and inclusive as it is.
This small but perfectly formed gallery showcases the best of Chinese visual art and culture in the Northern Quarter. In addition to being home to a roster of boundary-pushing work, the centre hosts experimental, hands-on workshops regularly (check out the 3D nail design salon) and a series of engaging after-hours talks. The best part? The centre is in the middle of the Northern Quarter, surrounded by brilliant bars and cafés you’d be remiss not to step into after your visit.
Smack dab in the middle of the city sits on oasis of calm in the grand shape of Manchester’s main art gallery, housing a superb collection alongside temporary exhibitions. There’s always a stellar line-up, but recently we enjoyed a free Leonardo da Vinci exhibition, part of a nationwide project seeking to commemorate the 500th anniversary of his death.
HOME merges two former cultural institutions, Cornerhouse and the Library Theatre Company, under one multi-million-pound roof. Visitors could happily get lost in here for days as the space is home – that’s right, HOME – to two theatres, five cinemas, and plenty of places to eat, drink, shop and hang out. Art-wise, it’s got a large and flexible gallery space that’s always free to enter and often hosts talks from the artists themselves.
Rogue Studios are heroes on the Manchester arts scene, and the city was shocked when they were forced to move from their old city-centre premises following its purchasing by developers. Worry not: with the help of City Council and Arts Council England, the art fiends set up a new home within a former school building. During open studio events, guests get to see the artists at work. Also keep an eye out for an array of sales, where you’ll be able to get your hands on some affordable art.
Like a huge glass and steel ship rising out of the once-derelict docks of Salford Quays, the Lowry opened in April 2000 as the Millennium Project for the Arts and has gone from strength to strength, recently announcing a £1 million private donation that has secured plans for further development. The venue – named after the great English artist L.S. Lowry, who spent much of his life in Manchester and Salford – is home to the largest collection of paintings and drawings by its namesake. The gallery spaces present a rotating collection of his art alongside the work of other artists, from Maggi Hambling to Spencer Tunick.
Close to Salford University and in the grounds of Peel Park lies Salford Museum & Art Gallery, opened in 1850 as the very first ‘unconditionally free’ public library in the UK. Now you can wander its rooms and marvel at the fantastic collection of artworks, largely Victorian, on display. Current exhibitions tend to be rooted in the institution’s Salford surroundings.
Based in an old cotton spinning mill, this multi-purpose arts venue in Salford is an ever-evolving arts space and community hub with a DIY ethos. More than 50 businesses and 100 artists are based at Islington Mill, which occasionally hosts events spotlighting the city’s up-and-coming art talent. Look out, too, for club nights and interactive exhibitions.
The Manchester School of Art is one of the most respected art universities in the country and the Holden Gallery is its contemporary exhibition space. There’s also a neat little shop where you can buy limited-edition zines and artwork press. Don’t miss out on the Degree Show in early summer, a raucous, must-see celebration of the work of all final-year students.
Tucked down a side street and easily missed, Castlefield Gallery is devoted to the development of emerging talent within contemporary art. The gallery was threatened with closure for a while but relaunched in 2012 with a strong programme and renewed vigour, making it a vibrant hub for contemporary artists and gallery-goers seeking something unusual. There are regular events and some of the shows are commercial, so you could snap up a bargain if you’ve got an eye for talent.
Gallery Oldham is a combination of many things – it’s a gallery, museum and archive all in one. Photography, geology, decorative art and artefacts from all over the world are on display here, while kids can get involved with free workshops like lantern-making classes and craft sessions every first Saturday of the month. All of this makes Gallery Oldham one of the best family-friendly destinations outside the city centre.
How did a café end up on this list? Although your eyes are likely to be drawn away from the artwork by the tempting line-up of doughnuts and cakes, Siop Shop does host exhibitions by top folk in the Manchester art scene. A recent highlight was ‘Pour Form’ – a selection of acrylic vases, pots and portraits by Rob Bailey.
Artzu is a commercial gallery but you won’t feel awkward or under any obligation to buy anything once you’ve been welcomed by the uber-friendly staff here. You can go in and browse, you can ask questions about work you don’t understand and you can enjoy the venue without having to panic about buying a £1,000 watercolour the size of a postcard.