Exhibition revisits how a ‘local’ gallery in 80s Rochdale broke radical ground

Until now, the pioneering work of the small civic gallery in Northwest England has been largely overlooked. A Tall Order! changes that.

17 January 2023

In the 1980s, Rochdale Art Gallery was addressing issues like racism, the Falklands war, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the AIDS crisis, the 1984 Miners’ Strike and anti-nuclear protests at Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camps in its curatorial programme. And yet, its internationally-engaged catalogue of political and social work has been largely left out of the art history books. A new exhibition at Touchstones Rochdale, Greater Manchester, will explore how a small curatorial team challenged perceptions of what a ‘local’ art gallery can be.

The name of the 2023 exhibition – A Tall Order! – nods to the major challenge exhibition officer Jill Morgan and the curatorial team faced during their time at the gallery; other members included Bev Bytheway, Sarah Edge, Catherine Gibson, Lubaina Himid and Maud Sulter. During a period of deindustrialisation and rising unemployment in 1980s Rochdale, Jill made clear the purpose of the Rochdale Art Gallery was to centre underrepresented communities in art and culture.

“Our policy is to encourage new audiences for art, particularly women, Black communities, young people, those with disabilities, and to encourage cultural activity for working class communities,” wrote Jill in 1987. “Broadly, to change the domination of art by a white middle class male audience and producer. A tall order!”


Patsy Mullan, Act Two: Stalker Inquiry, Seamus Grew and Roddy Doyle, Oil on unstretched canvas, Collection of the artist. (Courtesy and Copyright © of the artist)

The new exhibit at Touchstones Rochdale gathers 90 creatives. Some of these are artists who exhibited at Rochdale Art Gallery in the 1980s; younger emerging artists have also been enlisted to create work responding to Rochdale, the town and impact of Rochdale Art Gallery and its artists. This will be presented alongside archival evidence of this period and key pieces from the gallery’s collection.

Exhibiting works include Sphinx by Maud Sulter, a photographic series on the transatlantic trade of enslaved African people, and a new body of work from Jade Montserrat in response to Sutler’s, looking at colonialism and English countryside. Ceramicist Lubna Chowdhary, textile artist Sarah Joy Ford and artist and educator Sonia Boyce will also feature in the exhibition, which is split across themes such as Work and Labour, and Power, Identity and Representation. A Tall Order! runs from 4 February-7 May 2023.

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Derek Watson: A Well-Earned Rest (Copyright © Derek Watson, 1988)

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About the Author

Liz Gorny

Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. In January 2023, they became associate editor, predominantly working on partnership projects and contributing long-form pieces to It’s Nice That. Contact them about potential partnerships or story leads.

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