The title of this one-room show is taken from an inscription laid into the fabric of the Manchester Art Museum by architect Charles Barry. The quotation sets the tone for the start of this exhibition, which traces patronage and industrialisation in the 19th century.

Statements, Lowry sketches and paintings are all part of the museum's collection on display. Other areas of the show include the Leeds Art Club, established by Alfred Orange – who would later become the future editor of The New Age literary magazine – and Mass Observation, a photographic project that is receiving considerable attention at the moment. These moments from the history of the North West represent some radical times during which art, philanthropy and artists came together. For example, the Leeds Art Club was notable for welcoming women into its ranks, and the Mass Observation project's intention was to record the everyday occurrences that had yet to be recognised as valuable.

There are notable works on show, including some by John Rushkin, Lowry and photos by Humphrey Spender, as well as Graham Bell's sketchbooks from the Mass Observation project. But it's the premise of Whitechapel's year-long series of displays exploring art and philanthropy that is of particular interest. 

The show is conceived with the help of the Contemporary Art Society, a philanthropic organisation that donates artworks to galleries with the help of its members (usually very notable artists, such as Jeremy Deller). A statement in the first section by Thomas Horsfall titled Art in Large Towns (1853) describes the intentions of gallery owners and their dedication to "educating" the local working community on art. Points of note include drawing the masses in with live music in the evenings, the location of galleries being near those who need educating the most, and thorough explanations to help the viewer understand works. The style of writing is perhaps passé, but the sentiments are still quite surprisingly similar to today's, with late-night events to draw in the crowds; Tate's own brand of art history research and education; and inclusive off-site projects to engage local (often "deprived") areas of the community – not much has changed, then.

The arts have always travelled a murky road when it comes to philanthropy and patronage. Using private money to produce public projects for the "good of the public" is difficult to swallow in a cynical, self-interested society: who gets to decide what is worth investing in? But what this exhibition does show is some interesting socialist elements to the investments made in the past – enough to pacify anyone sceptical of the motivations that may have compelled Unilever's Turbine Hall sponsorship, that is. The exhibition incorporates industrial scenes, even hosting a film and a vitrine dedicated to the production of cotton, a well-known product from the North. It echoes the statement by Horsfall that the gallery should be a space to show off the best and most beautiful elements of a local area, and the inclusion of delicate pottery as well as images of local wildlife support this idea.

The exhibition is museum-like in its approach and as a result enjoyably educational. And, since it's a yearlong project, thankfully there is more to come.

Contemporary Art Society: Nothing Beautiful Unless Useful, at Whitechapel GalleryLaura Thornley's review of Contemporary Art Society: Nothing Beautiful Unless Useful at Whitechapel Gallery.3