Inside the Gallery Part 5: Outsiders, Archaeology and Manchester Bands

Adam is a musician and a member of the Whitworth’s Visitor Team. He sits with Ruby now as a part of her interview series, Inside the Gallery, which uncovers the amazing work that happens at the Whitworth and the fantastic individuals who make it. Today we covered topics such as Outsider Art, Daniel Johnston and the ins and outs of commercial archaeology.

Ruby: So, obviously I know what you do as we have the same job- so it would be weird if I didn’t! But for those who don’t know, how would you describe the role?

Adam: Yeah, okay. I’m a Visitor Team Assistant, so I look after the visitors and the general, front-facing part of the gallery really- so, talking to visitors, answering emails, social media, making sure the gallery and the artworks on display are safe. Things like that. Making sure everything’s running smoothly basically.

R: Is there a favourite part for you? Because there’s quite a lot of duties and jobs that the Visitor Team does- it’s not just one thing really.

A: Yeah, definitely. I like working on the desks, you know, greeting people when they come in- I dunno, I think it’s good for your mental health! It’s like just having lots of nice chats, really, over and over again for about an hour or so- it’s just like “good mornings”, “good afternoons”, “hellos” and “goodbyes”, it’s quite nice really. I also really like just talking to different visitors about pieces of work- especially when the visitor knows as much or more about the works than I do, and you sort of end up getting someone else’s take on something which you’ve not necessarily thought of yourself, which is really nice.

R: How did you come to this job in the Visitor Team? What was your journey to get here?

A: It’s a long one, really. It links back to…I studied Archaeology for my degree and when I was studying and going on digs and that, there was a significant portion of visitor engagement work when you weren’t excavating. On the first excavation I did I spent quite a bit of time working in the Visitor Services area, just out of choice, and then for the second dig I did, I was running Visitor Services. So, I was doing bits of teaching for the first years on delivering tours, general engagement, and things like that- I really enjoyed that. And then I went away travelling for a bit, then I lived in Norfolk for a few months. Then when I moved to Manchester I really wanted to work at the Museum, because I did quite a bit of Museum Studies at Uni, and then all the engagement stuff I did at the digs- it just made sense. But I knew that museum jobs were super, super difficult because the competition is so high- it was just luck really. First couple of weeks when I moved to Manchester, I didn’t have a job, and I was just wandering! Because I’d not actually been to Manchester before.

R: Why did you decide to move here?

A: I came to Manchester because I wanted to start a band.

R: Yeah, okay- that’s makes sense! I knew that was it.

A: Yeah- for some reason, I always had a romantic idea of moving to Manchester because the music scene, obviously, is good and it’s still cheaper than London which would have been the other option in terms of starting a band. But yeah anyway- we were walking up Oxford Road and went into the museum and my girlfriend, Meg, encouraged me to ask to see if there were any jobs going or even volunteering stuff. And it just so happened that the day after was the deadline for the VTA role there and Jude, who was working at the front desk there, told me how to apply and helped me out. And I managed to get it and there were a thousand applicants or something like that, and it was me, Naomi, and Steph [interviewer’s note- Steph is one of the people who runs this blog, shout out to Steph!]. I worked there for a year as it was fixed term and when that ended it coincided with some openings at the Whitworth. I was quite daunted at first as I don’t come from an art background at all so I was a bit worried that I would be out of my depth- but the focus does tend to be about what people’s individuality can bring to the Visitor Team.

R: I think an understanding of art is something you can teach yourself- it’s something that you can learn but I think having really good people skills is really difficult. I think the latter is really the basis of the job.

A: I think so, yeah, and I think that’s kinda what saved me. I think I started…I always forget how long I’ve been at the Whitworth! Every year I’m surprised that it’s been a little bit longer. I think it’s about two years…

R: Yeah, because I think you started about a year after me because I was around when you were being trained.

A: Yeah, that’s right- so yeah, it’s been really good.

R: So that’s quite a journey.

A: Yeah, I feel like I’ve been really lucky where I’ve just hopped from one thing to the next- it’s been a fairly natural progression.

R: To be fair, Adam, I think you’re just a really friendly person- so when you go for things like this, people are just like “yeah! We’ll have him!”

A: Yeah, I like to pride myself on being friendly, so it just shows that being nice and putting yourself out there does help a lot and just taking risks, but I always think that if I’d moved to Manchester a week later, things would have been very different. I was almost a salesman.

R: But you would still have done band stuff. But going back to the archaeology course, it seems like the one thing you haven’t kind of followed up on as much as your other skills.

A: Yeah, I love archaeology, History was one of my main subjects in school and I also really liked Sciences, so I did a BSc in Archaeology, so it was a lot to do with the scientific side of it, but I really enjoyed the visitor services part as well. But yeah, I don’t know- it did kind of carry on when I worked at the museum, because the Manchester Museum has loads of amazing archaeological finds, so it kind of linked there. The thing with Archaeology jobs is that, if I was going to get a job with a commercial archaeology company, which is the route a lot of graduates go down, it would be within large-scale development as whenever you do something like that, you have to get archaeologists in to check and make sure that you’re not building a housing estate on an ancient Roman burial site or something. But the thing with commercial archaeology, it’s very dependent on the economy and its lots of short contracts in random places doing ridiculously hard work- it’s basically a manual labour job a lot of the time; it’s digging for long periods of time. And I just didn’t fancy not knowing where I was going to be for six months or three months- it didn’t work for me as I wanted to have a music career- although saying that there is someone I know in the Manchester music scene who is a commercial archaeologist! But because the band is picking up quite nicely, I’m just focusing on that for the time being.

R: Tell me more about the band?

A: So, I’m in a band called Blanketman and we’ve been together since the end of 2017, so three years now, so that’s what occupies the rest of my time outside of the Whitworth. I’m one of the songwriters in the band and we’re doing quite well, so that’s good.

R: I think that’s a bit of an understatement…

A: Well, we’ve been on BBC Radio 1 and BBC 6 Music, so that’s going nicely. It’s kinda like post-punk-ish, alternative.

R: There’s a bit of a Talking Heads vibe to it which I really like.

A: Yeah, there’s all sorts of influences- that band has all types of different tastes in music which I think you can hear, so there’s bits and bobs taken from everywhere. I like sort of pop melodies, whereas the guitarist likes sort of jagged, sporadic guitar lines so a lot of the time it’s about pushing these things together and see if they work.

R: I think it makes it more dynamic musically.

A: Yeah, it’s probably more original than if it was one of us doing it. So, it’s going really well although COVID’s put everything on pause for a while which was really tough, but it is what it is. We’ve been doing what we can, we’ve recorded an EP over lockdown which came out in March, so we’ve been trying to keep busy, but it’s been difficult. But since things have opened up, we’ve been gigging and touring which has been ace.

R: I like how you’re being called the next Manchester band considering most of you aren’t Mancunian.

A: None of us are from Manchester, none of us!

R: Really!?

A: No, we all moved to Manchester for various reasons so it’s just, yeah…but it’s quite nice though because we’ve been adopted as a Manchester band.

R: Yeah, I mean, you’re being placed in a good canon. So, do you think your understanding of music has impacted your relationship with art in any way? Because they’re very interlinked as art forms.

A: Yeah, it’s all still art, isn’t it? It’s just different types- you’ve got visual art and then you’ve got music which is more…what’s the sort of equivalent?

R: Sonic?

A: Yeah, that’s the one, sonic art and there’s a lot of similarities- it does kind of inform…I don’t know- I think you can still be inspired by any art, no matter what form it takes. So, if I look at a piece of artwork that I really like it can often inspire me to write a piece of music, and I’m pretty sure it works the other way around as well. It all appeals to the same part of the brain I think, so obviously I’m quite new to art so I’ve not really spent much time looking at art. When I was away travelling, we went to a lot of galleries and stuff like that just because they’re free things to do when you’re away so, that was when I first started looking at art really. I never went to art galleries as a kid, but I quite like outsider artwork and this morning I was thinking about how you have a very similar thing in music as you have outsider artists in the music world as well.

Like, if you look at people like Daniel Johnston, who has suffered a lot in his life with really severe mental illness, and the way that it effects his music and song writing, it makes it so incredibly real and raw. And it’s very similar with outsider artists. So, Daniel Johnston didn’t go into music because he wanted to be famous, although, to be fair, he did like The Beatles and he wanted to be like them, but you really get a sense with his music that he needed to do it to survive. And you get that with people like Madge Gill, who is just following this inner spirit guide and she’s doing art all day, every day which she needed to do for herself. And I find that super interesting, so I think that’s why I’m more drawn to the outsider arts that are in our collection, as opposed to a Turner or something. Something more…

R: Commercial?

A: Yeah, commercial, and famous. Although on the flip side of that, I do like it when they go hand in hand, like Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground- I think that was a really cool collaboration. I’ll talk about Daniel Johnston again because he was an artist as well, and it started that he’d draw all of his tape covers and all these funny little cartoon frogs and things like that. But he also funded the rest of his career through his art, not his music, so he didn’t sell many records, but he did sell lots of pieces of artwork because people reacted to that and it was more physical, I don’t know. I don’t know how it works, it’s very strange!

R: Well, David Bowie had a huge collection of Outsider art so there’s definitely an interest within the music scene around outsider art.

A: I do think music, probably subconsciously, effects the way I look at artworks. I really like artwork which is really detailed, where you can see the nuances and look closely at things and it’s the same with music. When I listen to music, I really like listening to it in detail, just focusing on the different instruments or the creaking of the acoustic guitar or something. I really like that, and I think that parallels when I’m looking at artwork, which is why I like Madge Gill because it’s so detailed. It’s making me think that I should look into studies into the connection between your taste in music and your taste in art.

Mage Gill (1884 – 1961) ‘Untitled,’ The Whitworth, the University of Manchester.

Mage Gill (1884 – 1961) ‘Untitled’ (1957) The Whitworth, the University of Manchester

R: There’s definitely studies and essays about the relationship between art and music and what impact it’s had on the history of both artforms. Jackson Pollock used to listen to Jazz while he was painting.

A: Yeah of course, that’s quite famous, isn’t it?

R: There’s a lot of things like that. I think some people think that the arts are all separate but really, they’re kind of all linked. It’s about using the same creative part of your brain and articulating that in different ways. Some people are really good at getting those ideas out visually, others through songs or music, or performance-

A: Or writing yeah.

R: And there’s a lot of overlap and sort of transfer, so for instance, you’re the frontman of Blanketman, which means you have to be confident and perform in front of a lot of people and sort of be able to go “this is me, this is what I’m doing- take it or leave it!”

A: Yeah.

R: And it’s not the same, but it’s similar to what we do on tours in our job, where you have to have that confidence in what you’re saying in front of lots of people you’ve never met before.

A: Yeah, it definitely helps, when you’re doing a tour, it is kind of a performance isn’t it? You know, learning new material and delivering it to an audience [laughs] it kind of is yeah, I’ve not really thought about that. But it’s nice to think that my band stuff is helping my visitor team stuff!

R: I’m sure it is! Anyway, I’ve kept you far longer than I intended!

A: No, no it’s been nice.

R: Thanks for chatting with me today.

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