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But what if we tried?

Touchstones, Rochdale
2 March – 1 June 2019
Gallery Two, Three & Four


Intrigued by the fact visitors often ask us why we don’t show more of the over 1500 works in the Borough’s fine art collection, artist Harry Meadley set us the challenge of attempting to display as much of the collection as possible in a single exhibition. Spanning three galleries, But what if we tried? presents the result of this attempt. As much about the process as the final display, the exhibition also includes a multi-part documentary  filmed by Meadley featuring the Touchstones staff as they endeavour to realise this impossible task.

This is a unique and unmissable opportunity to see a large proportion of the collection on public display and discover more about all the conservation and research work that goes on behind the scenes.

Supported by Arts Council England, Friends of Rochdale Art Gallery and The Foyle Foundation.

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Gallery Two:
The secret life of a collection

Rochdale Borough’s art collection was founded in 1884 and comprises of approximately 1600 artworks including paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints. The way in which most people experience it is through a programme of public exhibitions that are normally staged in this space.

However, this is only one aspect of the we do at Touchstones as custodians of the collection, with out responsibilities ranging from cataloguing, research and digitisation, storage and conservation, through to managing an external loans programme and dealing with copyright and image requests. All of this work is ongoing and remains hidden from public view, but it is vital for the preservation and development of the Borough’s cultural heritage for present and future generations.

In the spirit of Meadley’s challenge our intention in this space, and throughout this unique project, is not to present a static display of ‘museumification’ of what goes on behind the scenes but instead to turn the galleries into a working space in which staff and others continue to go about the day-to-day business of managing and using a regional art collection.

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Talk to us!

Please feel free to ask us questions or share your knowledge about the collection in person or by using one of the forms on our feedback board.

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Gallery Three:
What’s new?

Art (as with every other aspect of life) doesn’t stand still. Throughout history artists have challenged our ideas about the forms that art can take and the materials it can be made from with their relentless exploration- in turn, constantly presenting galleries with new challenges for its public display. Collections, too, can’t be frozen in time. It is important that they represent, celebrate and inform audiences about the past, but equally that they reflect the present and even offer insight into future trends.

Thanks to the generous support of funders, organisations and bequests from private individuals in recent years, there has been an unprecedented growth in the art collection. Following a clear strategy, we’ve committed ourselves to collecting in three broad areas all of which build upon and amplify the existing straights of the collection.

All of the works in this space have acquired in the last three years and are seen here in the packing and crates in which they arrived. With one or two exceptions, they have never been shown as part of the collection before. In keeping with the spirit of this project, we will install some of the works over the course of the exhibition, allowing you a rare insight into the process of an art installation and the fixtures, tools, equipment and paperwork we use.

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  Our strategy   Every public collection of art has particular areas of strength, for example, significant holdings of work by one artist or an artistic movement. These areas will often form the foundation of a collecting (or ‘acquisitions’) policy, specifying what an institution will consider (through gift, donation, bequest and purchase) for entry into its collection.  We have a very clear policy that builds on the existing strengths within our collection. Not only does it guide the growth of our collection, but it also informs our exhibitions programme. In focuses on the following areas:   Women Artists  – building our histories strength in collection and showing the work of women artists by showcasing the formal and conceptual concerns of a new generation of female artists, while responding strategically to thereunder inequality that still exists in galleries and public art collections.   Northern Talent  – supporting emerging and established artistic talent in the North of England by providing these artists with the opportunity to create new career-defining work, placing their work in the critical context of nationally and internationally recognised artists, and seeking to bring them to the attention of others who can further their professional development.   Contemporary Craft  – continuing explore innovative contemporary craft, with a specific focus on artists who are appropriating and re-purposing materials, processes and techniques traditionally associated with craft practices such as ceramics and textiles.

Our strategy

Every public collection of art has particular areas of strength, for example, significant holdings of work by one artist or an artistic movement. These areas will often form the foundation of a collecting (or ‘acquisitions’) policy, specifying what an institution will consider (through gift, donation, bequest and purchase) for entry into its collection.

We have a very clear policy that builds on the existing strengths within our collection. Not only does it guide the growth of our collection, but it also informs our exhibitions programme. In focuses on the following areas:

Women Artists – building our histories strength in collection and showing the work of women artists by showcasing the formal and conceptual concerns of a new generation of female artists, while responding strategically to thereunder inequality that still exists in galleries and public art collections.

Northern Talent – supporting emerging and established artistic talent in the North of England by providing these artists with the opportunity to create new career-defining work, placing their work in the critical context of nationally and internationally recognised artists, and seeking to bring them to the attention of others who can further their professional development.

Contemporary Craft – continuing explore innovative contemporary craft, with a specific focus on artists who are appropriating and re-purposing materials, processes and techniques traditionally associated with craft practices such as ceramics and textiles.

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Gallery Four:
Warts and all

So here it is. Well, not all of it because clearly we were never going to be able to show every work in the collection: it would be a practical and logistical impossibility. However, we’ve managed to amass over 200 works (roughly 13% of our entire collection), floor to ceiling, in our largest exhibition space. It is the most comprehensive public presentation of the Borough’s permanent collection ever staged.

The conventional approach to an exhibition drawn from the collection would be to decide a theme, subject or artist and carefully select and arrange the work accordingly; underlying this, of course, is a series of judgments on the part of the staff, and the wider art world, about what is valued and deemed worthy of exhibition. For example, is the artist important of does the work exemplify a significant artistic of cultural movement?

However, this isn’t the point here: it is all about the collection and attempting to showcase as much of it as we can. Therefore, we’ve ignored all the normal curatorial considerations and simply followed as closely as possible, using a system of accession numbers, the order in which works have entered the collection. Consequently, we hope to offer a sense of how the collection has evolved, but also of how it bears witness to the different tastes and interests of the benefactors and curators who have shaped it over the years.

Please take one of the wall plans.

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Middleton Arena
In addition to Touchstones, we’ve also displayed even more works from the collection in out outreach case at Middleton Arena. Don’t miss it!

Over to you!
We’ve quite enjoyed opening the collection in this way. So much so, that we’ve decided we would like you to select the works you would like to see in our next collection exhibition opening in June. Please pick up one of the forms in Gallery Two to make your choice.

 To mark the last day of Harry Meadley ‘But what if we tried?’ we screened the final episode in our Picture Store.  We are now in the process of returning almost 400 artworks back into storage whilst we install our new exhibitions. Thank you to everyone who selected works for our next collection show, ‘Over to you...’ in Gallery Two.

To mark the last day of Harry Meadley ‘But what if we tried?’ we screened the final episode in our Picture Store.

We are now in the process of returning almost 400 artworks back into storage whilst we install our new exhibitions. Thank you to everyone who selected works for our next collection show, ‘Over to you...’ in Gallery Two.