Touchstones Rochdale set to undertake its most ambitious exhibition

A Special Pleader, a sentimental Victorian work by Charles Burton Barber

A Special Pleader, a sentimental Victorian work by Charles Burton Barber - Credit: Archant

A Lancashire gallery is about to attempt what some consider impossible – show every work of art in its possession.

Mons Graupius by British abstract artist Gillian Ayres

Mons Graupius by British abstract artist Gillian Ayres - Credit: Archant

Across the country, there are thousands of art works stored in local galleries that rarely see the light of day. Rochdale is about to challenge that.

In one of the most ambitious projects staged by any public gallery, Touchstones Rochdale plans to hang and install all of the borough’s 1,600 artworks from a collection spanning two centuries.

It is the idea of international video artist, Harry Meadley, whose response to the huge logistical challenge posed by the project forms the title for the exhibition – ‘But what if we tried?’ It opens at the gallery on March 2 and runs until June 1.

The works on show include pieces by internationally-renowned artists acquired by Rochdale, others more recently purchased and a number that have been long forgotten.

Crawling Woman, Benares, India, by Jeremy Critchlow

Crawling Woman, Benares, India, by Jeremy Critchlow - Credit: Archant

A large number will be part of a ‘salon hang’ involving as many works as possible occupying the walls.

Others will be seen in their crates because of their condition, while some might have to be digitized.

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Staff at the gallery have probed deeper into their collection than ever before revealing a series of anomalies and a mystery or two.

One of them involves a portrait of Oliver Cromwell, destroyed by the order of the gallery committee in January 1934. There are another three forgotten pieces thought to be out on ‘permanent’ loan since June 1959. It has also revealed the degradation of some works, due to the instability of materials of the age.

Harry’s provocative and playful proposal to gallery staff has created layers of logistical issues and raised poignant questions. Mark Doyle, gallery curator, said: ‘The nature of collecting art in the public’s name and the decades, if not centuries-worth of artworks already in the possession of local authorities, galleries and museums throughout the UK, is a subject of perpetual debate.

‘By asking us to remove everything from storage, Harry has kick-started a process that perhaps all public collections should be asked to go through. Rochdale owns many works considered priceless, whether they are by big-name artists or exemplify a particular artistic or cultural movement, with others now considered less valuable by a variety of measures. But, could that change as time brings new periods of evaluation? Whether we succeed in displaying every single artwork in Rochdale’s collection remains to be seen, yet the process and the resultant discussions here and, hopefully, elsewhere means we’re grateful to Harry for the challenge.’

Harry added: ‘I am very conscious that what I have asked of the team at Touchstones is a very big ask, and one I am extremely humbled they have been willing to accept. The fact that they have allowed me to film the process I hope signifies the real care and determination they have shown to both displaying and discussing the collection. It is the experience, expertise, and incredible effort of the small team at Touchstones that has made this impossible exhibition as ambitious as it can possibly be. It has been eye-opening and heart-warming to witness.’

Harry Meadley: But what if we tried? is part of Touchstone Rochdale’s Contemporary Forward programme. The gallery, in The Esplanade, is open Tuesday-Saturday, 10am-5pm. Admission is free.