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A partnership born out of a shared mission

Whitworth Art Gallery was opened in 1889 for ‘the perpetual gratification of the people’. Today, the gallery delivers a programme of exhibitions by world renowned artists and a jam packed early years, family and learning programme. The Whitworth, like Afrocats, is driven by a mission to use art and creative experience for positive social change, which is why we couldn’t be happier to be developing a partnership with our shared mission at its heart.

After a busy morning of diversity training, we met Fiona Cariss, Volunteer and Civic Engagement Manager at the Whitworth, over Zoom to get her take on the partnership and how it all came about.

"As soon as we heard about Afrocats and the amazing work Magdalen was doing, we knew we wanted to work with them. With Magdalen’s force she could take over the world - she’s one of those people that when you meet her, you think ‘yes let’s do this!’"

Whitworth has a really successful early years programme but Fiona explains how they were looking to expand and open the programme up to a more diverse visitor.

"We were really interested in opening up the gallery to the refugees and asylum seekers in the city, to create a space for people who potentially had never been to the gallery before.”

The gallery had a major redevelopment in 2015, opening up the gallery spaces to almost double in size and create more connection with Whitworth park through a communal art garden and outdoor programme.

“The gallery from the front is quite institutional looking, and can be a bit daunting for people who have never been before. People assume that it’s part of the uni or the hospital and you can’t go in.”

Breaking down barriers to accessing cultural and creative opportunities is key to Afrocats’ work. Magdalen, founder and CEO has her own story of culture shock and dealing with the challenges of life in a new country so is uniquely placed to work with organisations looking to open their spaces up to people who have experienced migration.

“We had lots of chats with Magdalen about what we could do and when. We don’t necessarily have the expertise or the connections that Magdalen has built up. It makes sense that rather than build something ourselves, we work in partnership with Afrocats to introduce new visitors to the gallery.”

But it wasn't just visitors who benefitted from the project it's undoubtedly brought value for the gallery and has spurred on future plans for Fiona.

"There’s been lots of learning for us and we’ve invested in training for our team. My ambition is that the Whitworth will be a gallery of Sanctuary for new arrivals in the city.”

Reflecting on the successes of the project Fiona told us how much volunteers had an impact on the project.

These projects are really enhanced by volunteers. It was wonderful to see both Afrocats and Whitworth volunteers come together and help us achieve this project."

With another takeover this month, the burning question for Fiona is - what’s next for the Whitworth and Afrocats partnership?

“Carry on! We’ve seen how successful it was, we had our record number of visitors since we reopened during the first takeover, it’s absolutely mega! We’re committed to being a safe and welcoming space for refugees and people seeking asylum as visitors, volunteers and beyond. I couldn’t think of a better way of doing that, than integrating our work with what Magdalen wants to achieve with Afrocats.”

Fiona’s top three things to do whilst you’re at the Afrocats takeover:

  1. Explore the gallery, the big gallery spaces at the back of the building is where you can visit the free Suzanne Lacy exhibition.

  2. Take a mindful moment in the peaceful and open spaces of the gallery - it can be quite a spiritual experience because it is so light and airy

  3. Visit the Alex Bernstein garden which you can access from the lower prom - it’s really quiet so take a moment to meditate surrounded by art and orchard trees.

Join Afrocats over the Easter holidays for three days of African and Caribbean inspired singing activities and culturally creative workshops.

Find out more here.


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