Backstage at The Lowry: Chris Bowler – Senior Visual Arts Technician


It’s like building a rollercoaster, I think. Building an exhibition from scratch.

Do the groundwork, do the engineering, make sure it all works, construct it, paint it. I just keep things clean and tidy and make sure it’s lit properly so people can enjoy it.

But as soon as a show is on, we’re all thinking about the next one. Then when a show’s done, it’s in the skip!

We all of us say, the worst thing about a show is letting people in, because people wreck it! Things become dirty and broken. If people could just see our exhibitions through the glass windows and doors then that would be fine!

We polish it until it’s absolutely beautiful. And the artists themselves always love it. People come in and gasp sometimes, which is a joy. That’s what you want.

I liaise with all the art gallery staff, coordinate the changeover of exhibitions, build the exhibitions, maintain them. And I do all the maintenance of stores and work on collections and loans. I go out, drive vans, collect things, come back. I even look after a sculpture trail.

“It doesn’t matter to me whether the painting’s worth five pence or five million pounds…”

My qualifications don’t matter in this job – it’s just experience. There is no course in any college or university that teaches you how to be an art gallery technician.

I fell into it from art school in Leeds, where I did a degree in painting. I got a job with the council in a pottery museum, but then they cut the funding. But after a bit of an interview I started at the gallery that next Monday morning. And I was then only technician there out of a dozen who knew anything about art! The were all joiners, bakers and so on.

After many years in Leeds I was the Senior Technician for the city’s sites. But I’m from Salford and all my family are here. And we were forever driving back and forth with the kids over the hills. So when the job here was advertised in 1999, I applied for it.

I was here at the Lowry before this building was even open to the public. And before that I was in a little place in Salford at the Art Gallery, getting the collection ready before we were even given an office here.

I catalogued over 500 pieces, cleaned them, changed the glass to a much more modern gallery glass. Packing it all up. I was building the exhibition, the first one, before this place was even ready. I remember wandering around the galleries before they were really built, before there were any doors.

“I do the groundwork, do the engineering, make sure it all works, construct it, paint it..”

I do really like LS Lowry. I studied him when I was at school. I have always been interested in art – my eyesight was, is, so bad that I didn’t play football or rugby but instead I drew in a sketchbook. If the boys were all playing football I would draw them playing.

I love the basic honesty of Lowry. I see people now who are Lowry characters. When I was a kid I was a paperboy up in Cheetham Hill, in the Jewish quarter, and I would see older ladies dressed in a full shawls with skirts down to the floor, or old gents in flat caps. My granddad used to look like a Lowry with a flat cap and braces. I look like a Lowry, sometimes. We all do, all of us.

There is no other British painter like Lowry. No-one else went through those periods, from the early 20th century to the 1970s, right through those periods staying the course and just doing what he was doing, recording things around him with the soul of someone from Salford.

He encapsulated the dirt, the muck, all the buildings. The people, the pavements, the buildings all have character. I do think we could still do a lot more with the Lowry collection – I’d like to see whistles, bangs and fireworks about Lowry every single day.

I am a conservation picture framer. I was taught about paper and paintings. I was taught how to cast and rebuild frames, reguild them, take them apart and put them back together again, distress the guild back to a certain period.

And then when the painting goes in they’re all set in foam, acid-free materials used. No more bent nails holding the painting in the frame. Perspex back. Job done – that’s how they should be.

The most expensive pieces of art I’ve handled in all my time here remain the Lowrys. They’re worth £5-7 million, some of them.

But it doesn’t matter to me whether the painting’s worth five pence or five million pounds. It’s all the same to me.