From the shellshock of ‘Covid 2020’ rises three 2021 exhibitions, looking at the human impact of the pandemic, commemorating the Battle of Britain and querying the slow disappearance of Britain’s regional art schools.

Just where did all of our arts schools go? Has Covid-19 changed people? What role can culture play during war and national crisis? Recognising these amongst other questions needing answers, Touchstones Rochdale responds with optimism to a ‘lost year’ spent in the shadow of the Coronavirus pandemic with three, new exhibitions announced to open in Spring 2021. Opening simultaneously on Tue 18 May 2021, the gallery continues to ask questions of the people of Rochdale, Greater Manchester and the wider world at a crucial time for society and the arts. 

What’s Changed? is the simplest of questions with myriad answers, this time put to local people as they took stock of the first six months of the pandemic, including the UK’s initial, most drastic lockdown period. Ensuring that the shock of the now is framed with perspectives from the past, Touchstones delves into Rochdale’s nationally significant social history archives to set recent memories, gathered via a public callout, alongside evidence of changing lifestyles, trends and collective, cultural shocks of years gone by. 

2020 saw the 80th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain and, in partnership with Imperial War Museums (IWM) and supported by the Art Fund, Touchstones provides a valuable opportunity in We can do it. War’s Other Voices to reflect on a pivotal moment in 20th Century history through the work of women artists and the experiences of the female wartime workforce. Rochdale Art Gallery itself, the former name of Touchstones, came to play a starring role as a versatile centre for the community war effort and the local archives, once again, shine with artefacts to set key moments from 1940 in vivid relief.

Rochdale, like many other industrial towns of the north, was home to its own art school before it was destroyed (and not replaced) by fire in 1969. For a decade, John Beck and Matthew Cornford have traced and photographed the sites of lost art schools around the north of England, triggering questions as to what became of the students who studied there, the work they made, their impact on the arts nationally and regionally and where arts education is going next. In Harmony, Contrast & Discord, Touchstones welcome Beck and Cornford’s work alongside deeper investigations into the people and the place that was Rochdale College of Art.

With loans of works and artefacts, plus the stories of participants in key projects yet to be revealed, the current listings and preview information for all Spring 2021 exhibitions at Touchstones Rochdale are as follows:


  • Harmony, Contrast & Discord – Tue 18 May – Sat 3 July 2021


Covering two galleries, the starting point for Harmony, Contrast and Discord is the fact that there were over 150 art schools in the United Kingdom in the mid-1960s, many of them in industrial towns and cities where arts education provision is now arguably eroded. Artists John Beck and Matthew Cornford have spent almost 10 years photographing the sites of these former art schools as they are today, including the car park in Rochdale that was the site of the, never replaced, Rochdale College of Art. Featuring Beck and Cornford’s photography, artwork and objects from the Borough’s collections, the art and stories of alumni and tutors and a ‘live’ art school, this exhibition explores the value placed on education in the arts, the legacy of the art schools and what relation art should have to broader society now and in the future.



  • What’s Changed? – Tue 18 May 2021 – Sat 1 Jan 2022


Things changed quickly for everybody as the scale of the Covid-19 crisis became apparent in March 2020. For many it may have forced a re-evaluation, of the things people value the most, the pace at which they live their lives and what they do with their time. Following a call-out for ideas from the Rochdale community, What’s Changed? provides an early snapshot of what, if anything, a global pandemic has altered in people’s attitudes, aspirations and ambitions. Mixing first-hand reflections, artwork, objects and ephemera from across the Borough’s nationally-significant social history collections, the exhibition pursues prescient themes including family and friends, health and wellbeing and nature.

  • We can do it. War’s Other Voices – Tue 18 May – Sat 18 Sep 2021

In partnership with the IWM, and originally conceived to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, important loans from IWM and Manchester Art Gallery as well as works from Rochdale’s own collection, are included in an evocative exhibition focusing on the role of women and art galleries during the Second World War. Artwork by women artists including Elsie Hewland and Eileen Agar allow viewers to contemplate wide-ranging views and experiences from within the conflict, as well as detailing the inequality rife in the art world at the time, with talented women artists making up only a small number of works acquired in a government-led, wartime collecting scheme. Artefacts including a wedding suit in RAF blue and public information posters, record the undeniable impact of the female-led war effort. Rochdale Art Gallery itself played an influential role and, through evidence of popular exhibitions of the day and its adaptation to become an air raid shelter and administration centre, a timely story of how art galleries are able to step up at a time of national crisis is told. 


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