When we came to live in Manchester 35 years ago, I was thrilled to discover a splendid memorial to Victorian civic benevolence: the city Art Gallery. It was imposing. It had columns and steps up to the front door. It had an annexe called the Athenaeum where visiting exhibitions were hung, and above all, it was chock full of amazing paintings. I fell in love with the Pre-Raphaelites and even had a chapter in a book of mine (The Fantora Family Files) in which all the pictures come magically to life, and the black kitten from Millais's "The Flood" leaps into the bonfire of his famous "Autumn Leaves".
For the past few years, the place has been shrouded in plastic and scaffolding, and the unveiling of the new, improved building has created rather less fanfare than it deserves.
But, first things first. All the old friends are still there, but now some over-the-top vases and silverware pieces have funny little paintings by Tony Ross propped up next to them. The cafe was always delightful, but it's much bigger, and looks more stylish. The shop is excellent and the front hall of the building has its noble staircase leading the way up to well-remembered glories.
I was eager, though, to see the extension - the Clore Interactive Gallery - and the new exhibition spaces above it. I went up to the first floor in a glass lift, and found a place full of installations, paintings, and sculpture which not only would keep anyone, child or adult, happily occupied for hours but which are most beautiful in themselves. "Reguarding Guardian" by Dhruva Mistry is a giant turquoise creature which is both endearing and impressive. "Lark Ascending" by Mark Lambert is a sculpture you can add to: there are lots of birds with a hole drilled through each and it's very satisfying to thread your bird on to the pole on top of all the others; to make the lark ascend a little higher. Debbie Goldsmith and Hilary Jack's wall of suitcases sprouting a forest of labels invites visitors to fill in their dream destination. I wrote "Paris" on mine, remembering Uncle Reggie.
There's a hot sauna of a cubicle where you can listen to ghost stories, after a painting on a screen in front of you comes to life. You can watch a still life grow stale in front of your eyes. You can make a landscape of coloured glass rods. You can add your portrait to a portrait wall. You can choose a detail from a painting divided into a grid and copy it. When you've finished doing all that, you can look at the Adolphe Vallette collection, and works by Lucian Freud, the Nicholsons, and a beautiful Gwen John portrait.
The current exhibition on the second floor of the extension is New Indian Art. Before you get to it, just stepping out of the lift is an experience in itself. You're confronted by a panoramic roof-scape of Manchester, which will change with the weather and will always astonish.
The Indian art is a revelation. What looks very like a giant pomander studded with silver circles glitters from the ceiling. Glass eyes spread in a pattern over one wall; a straw tree grows in the middle of the floor; and, most moving of all, there are photographs taken at a portrait studio in Bombay, showing three brides on one wall - one Muslim, one Hindu and one Christian. Any child who enjoys the interactivity on the first floor will love this exhibition too, with its singing colours and accessible forms.
The gallery, which has a good relationship with Barefoot Books, is planning a joint exhibition of children's book illustration this month and has hosted workshops by storyteller Hugh Lupton and illustrator Clare Beaton. This is a side of the educational programme which promises to be very fruitful, and which other publishers might emulate. Every school in the area now has a tremendous resource on its doorstep and it's to be hoped that curriculum pressure doesn't prevent them from making the most of it. I want to go back and see more, see better.
Manchester Art Gallery, Mosley Street, Manchester M2 3JL. Tel: 0161 235 8888; www.manchestergalleries.org. Open Tuesday to Saturday 10am-5pm, admission free. 'New Indian Art: Home, Street, Bazaar, Shrine, Museum' to September 1; 'Imagine', an exhibition of children's book artwork in association with Barefoot Books, runs from September 21 to November 17. 'The Fantora Family Files' by Ad le Geras will be republished by Oxford University Press next year