The new MK Gallery has more than doubled its size with the addition of a new steel-framed structure adjoining and merging with the original building. According to the gallery, Milton Keynes – a ‘new town’ built in the 1970s – is one of the fastest growing ‘cities’ in Europe with one of the strongest economies in the UK, partly due to its central location between Birmingham and London and excellent transport links. However, despite this, Milton Keynes has been designated as a ‘cultural cold spot’ and the new MK Gallery aims to revive the ambitious, innovative and generous spirit that drove the Milton Keynes Development Corporation.

“Our ambition has been to create a building where the art centre and the social spaces come together in what we believe is a rare example of collective authorship across disciplines, where art, architecture and design are interchangeable,” said Anthony Spira, Director of MK Gallery. “In doing so, we are proposing a new kind of accessible art centre, which pays tribute to and tells the story of Milton Keynes, fully engaged with playful ways of seeing and definitively open to all.”

The new MK Gallery is free to enter and has been designed by 6a architect, It receives regular core funding from Arts Council England as a National Portfolio Organisation and Milton Keynes Council, and is a member of Plus Tate network. The inaugural exhibition, The Lie of the Land, is, says the curators ‘an ambitious show spread across all five galleries curated by MK Gallery Director, Anthony Spira, with Sam Jacob, Claire Louise Staunton, Fay Blanchard, Tom Emerson, Gareth Jones and Niall Hobhouse’.

The exhibition is designed as a ‘kind of cabinet of curiosities’, the curators say, ‘that places Milton Keynes and the new gallery in a playful context’. It looks at changing attitudes towards leisure, culture and landscape over more than 250 years with 85 artists, architects and designers, including Thomas Gainsborough, J.M.W Turner and Joseph Paxton, Yinka Shonibare MBE, Jeremy Deller and Bridget Riley all placed alongside retro items such as a vintage picnic basket, one of the earliest lawnmowers, Gertrude Jekyll’s gardening boots and a banner from Greenham Common.

“The Lie of The Land highlights campaigns to democratise space, from the 17th century egalitarian Levellers to the 1930s Ramblers,” says the curators. “We look at how people use public space, and the communities that have been excluded through structures of race, gender, disability and class, explored in works by artists including Jo Spence, Rose Finn-Kelcey and Ingrid Pollard.”

The Sky Room, an auditorium on the upper floor, with 150 retractable seats, and views over Campbell Park. Photo courtesy of 6a

The New MK Gallery includes:

  • Five exhibition galleries, the first over 9 metres high, the others 6 metres high, all white with polished concrete floors and exposed services on the ceilings, together providing 500 sq metres of gallery space.
  • A large learning and community studio, with red beams, a yellow circle on the floor and a black circle on the ceiling, to echo the adjacent external staircase.
  • The Sky Room, an auditorium on the upper floor, with 150 retractable seats, and views over Campbell Park and countryside through a large semi-circular window. The Sky Room, which can be divided into two spaces, provides facilities for an independent cinema programmed with Curzon Cinemas; gigs, poetry nights, comedy nights and social and corporate functions, with a standing capacity of 300.
  • A large new window inserted in the front of the building, allowing views from the outside all the way through the building and a central perspective that connects the galleries.
  • A new entrance with a gift shop.
  • A new independent café, with exposed pipework and accents of bright red and yellow, evoking the original 1970s architects’ department for the Milton Keynes Development Corporation.
  • A fully equipped Changing Places toilet for people with complex needs, one of only two facilities of its kind in Central Milton Keynes, part of the gallery’s award-winning long-term programme for people with disabilities.
  • A yellow lift, large enough for two wheelchairs to be taken up together to the auditorium.
  • Excellent environmental conditions and security allowing the gallery to be part of the Government Indemnity Scheme (GIS) and to borrow valuable and vulnerable artworks and objects.
  • A playscape adjacent to the Learning Studio which provides a kind of sculpture park, with artist-designed structures to play on. These refer to original designs for the city’s infrastructure and provide an example of how play equipment, sculpture, design and street furniture all merge into one.

Integrated within the new scheme, artists Gareth Jones and Nils Norman were commissioned, in collaboration with 6a architects and graphic designer Mark El-khatib, to create City Club, a sequence of new public spaces in and around the new MK Gallery. Inside, these include the foyer, café/bar and Sky Room. Outside, they include a playscape, a garden and a new façade for the existing gallery building.

The new entrance, with a colour scheme that revives the original gallery ‘sandstone and terracotta’ facade of 1999, features a large red neon heart, the first ever logotype for Milton Keynes, and a double headed axe, signs which are part of a homage to the city’s iconic original design.

MK Gallery's new entrance features a large red neon heart, the first ever logotype for Milton Keynes. Photo courtesy of 6a

The development provides for major exhibitions both contemporary and historical, films, music, performance, family events, workshops, and social spaces open free to all.

The Lie of the Land runs from 16 March to 26 May 2019.

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