Its opening night attracted queues of over 2000. So what makes the Open so special?
Picture an ‘open exhibition’ and what do you think of? Amateurish watercolours from some provincial art group, a fusty village hall and a sense of déjà vu?
These are just some of the stereotypes…and not without reason. Sidelined and stigmatised, this type of exhibition is often considered the preserve of hobbyists and is rarely held in major city centre gallery spaces - which is perhaps why HOME’s Manchester Open exhibition has caused such a stir.
Accepting submissions from all 10 boroughs of Greater Manchester, the landmark event received over 2000 entries and attracted queues round the block on its opening night last Friday. Displaying over 500 works from more than 450 residents, it’s the first of its kind in the region.
Perhaps its greatest appeal is democratising visual arts, a medium that can feel exclusive. Convoluted language, inaccessible prices (if works are for sale at all) and a sense of some inner club - one gallery assistant at the Tate once told me my opinion was invalid because I hadn’t spent six years at art school - are just some of the things I’ve encountered in my art world forays. It’s not just the consumer that can feel intimidated either: many artists struggle to get noticed in a baffling hierarchy that sees others make millions.
That’s why the Manchester Open is so refreshing. It’s diverse, free to browse (or a pay-as-you-feel donation) and follows a range of workshops held throughout GM; encouraging as many people as possible to get creative and take part, regardless of background or experience level. What’s more, most artwork is for sale - with prices spanning £12,000 to a tenner.
All entries were judged and selected by a committee chosen for their unique perspectives and their belief in the power of art to inspire and unite communities: Jamil Abdulkader, Monique Jarret, Anne Louise Kershaw, Bren O’Callaghan, Mario Popham, Kate Vokes, Helen Wewiora and HOME’s own curator Bren O’Callaghan, who proposed and produced the exhibition.
Mediums include paintings, prints, photography, sculpture, digital and mixed media, video and audio, spoken word, performance and more.
Subjects and genres are just as diverse; Hellish triptychs inspired by Hieronymus Bosch to Maori mythology and intricate papercut theatres. Elsewhere, you’ll find everything from Keith Bloody Mary’s whimsical collage to Meha Hindocha’s ‘musical’ Manchester skyline and Lee Jeffries’ evocative portraits of those on society’s sidelines.
University graduates jostle alongside renowned talent and debut artists, with one just five years old - he was first in on opening night, followed closely by the Open’s oldest exhibitor. At 96, Suzanne suffers from macular degeneration but she plans to keep on painting for as long as possible.
Other inspiring stories include that of Laura Besancon, a Maltese immigrant who - feeling lonely - asked everyone in her tower block to listen to a piece of music at the same time and flash their lights along with the beat. The result, which she filmed, is a striking commentary on isolation and togetherness. New mum and photographer Elle Brotherhood, meanwhile, was inspired to create a work in just 45 minutes while her son took his nap.
“I have so many tales,” O’Callaghan told us. “We couldn’t include them alongside the artwork as there was literally no room! But there are so many reasons people create art, it isn’t all fame and fortune.”
As well as supporting talent through its submissions policy, the Manchester Open will also award five participating artists with a tailored bursary worth £2000 each. Delivered in partnership with Castlefield Gallery, these can be used to support expenses like travel, studio rent and materials.
Categories include illustration and drawing, sculpture and form and the ‘Granada Foundation Gallery’ for artists with potential for a solo show at HOME. Another, the bOLder Greater Manchester Prize, awards entrants over 50 and is sponsored by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority as part of their Culture and Ageing programme. The fifth category is the People’s Vote, voted for by visitors during the first four weeks of the exhibition.
All finalists will receive certificates designed as limited edition prints by Minute Works, while the winners will each receive an award made by Stockport’s On The Brink Studio - created using Manchester poplar, bog oak and wax from the beehives on the roof of HOME. Winners will be announced at 6pm on Thursday 20th February and a list of shortlisted artists can be found here.
Curator O’Callaghan said: “That it feels radical to exhibit the work of hundreds of local artists in a city centre location like HOME is a wakeup call - we need to change our way of thinking about art and artists and how we support and develop talent. Why should 'local’ become shorthand for ‘not as good’? HOME’s purpose is to celebrate the artistic potential in everyone and we hope the Manchester Open, which will happen every two years, will become a high point in the region’s cultural calendar.”
Judging by the response so far, we don’t doubt that it will.
Manchester Open is on until 29th March at HOME - free entry.
Part of Push Festival, it will be accompanied by a range of special tours on Thursdays and Saturdays - free, booking required.
Thumbnail image: Jason Lock