Inside the Gallery Part 3: The Visitor Team

In part three of her interview series, in which she talks to different people who work at the Whitworth about their roles and how they relate to our building and collections, Ruby talks to Ashleigh Owen. Ash is the Visitor Team Manager, who works with the “eyes and ears” of the gallery.

Whitworth reopening in 2015. Image © Jan Cheblik.

Ruby: So, hello Ash.

Ash Owen: Hello Ruby.

R: So, everyone at the Whitworth knows what you do, but for those who don’t, what do you do and how does that connect to the gallery in a wider sense?

AO: I suppose I could be quite self-indulgent and say I’m at the epicentre of the gallery, but if you are writing this down my tone and awful sense of humour is going to get lost in translation, isn’t it? So, I guess I’ll just stick with my official title and say I am the Visitor Team Manager, which basically means I look after all the lovely Visitor Team Assistants who are the eyes and ears and, well yeah, the heartbeat of gallery really.

R:  I know that you’ve had quite a few different jobs at the gallery, so how long have you worked here?

AO: In a nutshell I started working at the Whitworth around October 2014 as a Visitor Team Assistant. I was part of that initial team who welcomed visitors back to the Whitworth after it had a £15 million refurbishment and had been closed for 18 months. I then got promoted to a Visitor Team Coordinator role, so you know spending less time on the gallery floor and a bit more time in the office. I was in that role for about 18 months before I was promoted again to Visitor Team Manager. So, yeah, a few different roles but all in the realms of Visitor Team-ness. 

R: Yeah, they’re all in a similar area but with a lot of different levels and types of responsibility, but, going back to the reopening- it must have been strange having your first day in the gallery being one of the busiest days in its history. There were thousands of people with live music and artists and huge events going on, so what was that like?

AO: Yeah, the reopening was a real baptism of fire. We did A LOT of training and prep leading up to it but, like most people, I learn by doing. I guess I was rather lucky too in that I already had experience of working in galleries and doing a similar sort of thing before I joined the Whitworth. So, I’d worked and volunteered at places like the Bluecoat Gallery, the Foundation of Arts and Creative Technology (FACT) and Open Eye Gallery. So, I’d already done the job, just not on the scale or to style of the Whitworth.

Whitworth reopening in 2015. Image © Jan Cheblik.

R: Yeah, I remember the reopening well – it was a fantastic event. What an amazing way to show your new mission statement of “here we are, this is what we can do” you know?

AO: Yeah, very much so.

R: So, did you want to be a manager when you joined the team?

AO: I think having experienced the 2015 reopening, you know, that high and that buzz, come around like May or June it started to plateau and even out. I was into the day-to-day, the week-by-week of it all. I knew I really enjoyed the reopening so I wanted to capture that buzz again. So, two things came up at once: I applied for a two-year voluntary position at an artist-led space in Liverpool called The Royal Standard (quick shout out to TRS), were my title was Artistic Director, but I was definitely more of a dog’s body. It was a fantastic experience though because you sort of just learned by doing.

You were afforded so much trust and just yeah placed with four or five other like-minded people who were just happy to give their time and energy to invest in something they cared so strongly about. It was such an amazing opportunity reflecting back. Anyway, that came up in about May, and then about a month later the Visitor Team Coordinator post came up. I applied for both, not thinking that I’d land either. You know the saying ‘you don’t shoot you don’t score’ and all that. Anyway, somehow landed both of them and then suddenly found myself with far too much on my plate. I was working five days a week at the Whitworth and then I’d spend my two days off in Liverpool volunteering at TRS.

R: Wow.

AO: …Yeah so, I did that was for about two years and completely burnt myself out. Then the Visitor Team Manager position came up. So again, me being me I threw my hat in the ring and somehow landed that as well. So it’s not like I can say I’ve fallen into it, because my background is in the arts, I like art and I like talking to people about art, so there is some logic holding it all together I guess. But let’s be clear, it’s not like when I was a kid I was dreaming of being a Visitor Team Manager at an Art Gallery.

R: I mean, I’d be slightly concerned if a kid had such a specific career goal.

AO: Hahaha, me too.

R: I’d like to know when or where did your interest in art originated? Did you always go to art galleries, or was there that one art teacher in school?

AO: Gosh. I don’t know Ruby… I got flagged as being dyslexic at a very young age. I never, well yeah, I didn’t really understand what this meant other than I got pulled out of classes every now and then to have some one-on-one lessons for my reading and spelling. Now my mum being my mum wanted me to go to an academic school. So I did practice 11+ test after practice 11+ test and somehow ended up at my local grammar school. I had a fantastic education, I really did, but it was hard. I’m not academic. What I really got out of Secondary School was my work ethic. I was quick to figure out that I was around people who didn’t need to work that hard to get good grades, but I did. Now for a 13 / 14 year old boy this is a pretty humbling experience I won’t lie. Anyway, I digress. I suppose art slowly turned into my escapism. They often say that people with dyslexia and other learning disabilities tend to be more creative don’t they? That may be true, but for me it was more about escaping the stresses of working hard. Sorry I’ve sort of given you a mini life story there haven’t I…?

R: It’s fine, go on…

AO:  Well yeah, this sort of just rolled into my teenage years, you know standard things like choosing Art as an A-Level. I did slowly start to appreciate Art, mainly for all its frivolities though. So say you’re at school and your maths teacher goes ‘1+1=2’ and you ask “why?” and they’d say “well because it is”, that wasn’t fun for me. Art has such a liberating quality doesn’t it? I guess this just captured my attention.

R: So, what sort of artwork did you do? What was your specialism?

AO: Well by the time I got to university I was drawn to sculpture. I sort of took over the casting room, because the Casting Technician was made redundant after my first year. So I’d picked up some of the basics but then suddenly had no supervision.

R: Did it go a bit Lord of the Flies after he left?

AO: I’d like to think there was a sense of law and order [laughs]. I tried teaching the first year students everything I’d learnt from this guy. But looking back it was pretty chaotic. I’m digressing again aren’t I? Sorry. I went to The University of Leeds because there was a really good Erasmus program. I’ve always been pretty self-aware, as the 13 year old version of me who knew he needed to work hard may have already alluded to. By the time I was 21 I knew I was still a bit of a prat and that I needed to sort myself out. I thought it would be a good idea to try and displace myself, don’t ask me why I thought that but I ended up living and studying abroad for a year in Istanbul. Sounds so cliché, but this experience did change me. It changed my interest and understanding of art because the training was very traditional. So, you’d start at 9AM and there’d be a life model there, you’d sculpt the life model out of clay.

Henry Spencer Moore (1898-1986). Mother and Child. Bronze. C.1929 (cast 1967). Accession number: S.1987.2 Source: the Whitworth Image © The Henry Moore Foundation

I remember the first day, all the Turkish students were really excited that this English lad had turned up, because well I guess a lot of fantastic sculptors have come from Britain, haven’t they? Like Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. We’ve got some lovely Henry Moore’s in our collection come to think of it. Anyway, I still remember like it was yesterday how disappointed they all were when they saw my first sculpture, as it basically looked more like Morph than anything close to resembling the human form. I did get better over the course of the year.

But it was great because in the afternoons you’d specialise- you know, in wood or metal or bronze or stone. For some reason I picked stone.

R: Oh my god! So, the hardest one, yeah?!

AO: Arguably so, yeah. In my head I arrogantly thought that I was going to become this master stone carver in the space of a few months. It was another humbling experience.

R: I did a foundation course at the Manchester School of Art, and I think what you learn at art school, above all, is failure. It’s about learning how to fail, learning what you’re not good at. Like I realised at art school that I’m okay at art, I can draw, and I can paint and that’s fine- I’m technically good; but that’s very different from being an artist. And I think that art school is almost a way to weed people out and say well if you’re not good at this, what do you actually want to do? And I think that that’s equally important as learning techniques or anything like that, I think it’s so important to know what you’re not good at or what you should be doing. I don’t think it’s the same as a normal university course.

AO: I’d bow to that sentiment, yeah.

R: Yeah, so as someone who has an interest in art and works at a gallery, what exhibition (since you’ve worked here) has been your favourite?

AO: Hmmm, I think it’s more about the spaces we inhabit and the people you know. It’s the daily experiences and interactions that our spaces and exhibitions afford us to have that keep me going. You know, say when you get someone who is frustrated or annoyed because somethings not been done in a particular way. I can’t help but find myself channelling my old Maths teachers and asking them what they think 1+1 equals. Maybe that doesn’t make as much sense as it does in my head…

R: That’s a great answer. I think because the Whitworth does so much outreach and it isn’t such a ‘white cube’ sort of gallery, which people might expect it to be, and there have been studies into how those ‘white cube’ kind of contemporary art galleries make people uncomfortable physically in terms of the seating and the whiteness of the walls can really intimidate people, and the Whitworth just isn’t like that.

AO: Do you not think we’re almost the other extreme though, and our lack of uniformity is uncomfortable? Not that being uncomfortable should have negative connotations. I think it’s this tumultuous sentiment that sort of runs through our exhibition programme that I really like. Reminds me that I’m human. Actually, yeah, I think that’s it, for me, I think when people get to see or learn something about themselves in an artwork or display, that’s the joyous nucleus of it all. That’s what makes the Whitworth for me, is its very real and very humane place.

R: Well, that’s a fantastic way to end this and thank you for giving me your time!

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