From rhubarb to renaissance as city starts to blossom as hotspot for arts

Chris Hill inside Unity Hall,Wakefield, and Lesley Farrell and Heidi Waddington, below.
Chris Hill inside Unity Hall,Wakefield, and Lesley Farrell and Heidi Waddington, below.
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Wakefield is often cast in the shadow of Leeds but now the city is spreading its cultural wings and making a name for itself. Chris Bond reports.

THERE are seven cities in Yorkshire and while most people can quickly name six, the one that sometimes stumps them is Wakefield.

Perhaps this is because of its close proximity to its bigger, noisier neighbour a couple of miles north up the M1. Leeds has for a long time now been the confident, de facto capital of Yorkshire. But while it reinvented itself as a shopping “Mecca” and the second largest financial centre in the country outside London, Wakefield has struggled to shake off its image as an ex-mining town.

Times change, of course, and so has Wakefield. There is a growing air of excitement and optimism driven by a cultural reawakening in the city. Until recently, it was perhaps best known for being at the heart of the famous Rhubarb Triangle, but now it’s another triangle that has got people talking.

The so-called Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle revolves around The Henry Moore Institute, The Hepworth Wakefield, Leeds Art Gallery and Yorkshire Sculpture Park, has been causing waves across the pond. It even made it on to the pages The New York Times which said in December that “Yorkshire has reaffirmed its position on the global arts map.”

The Lonely Planet was equally effusive, praising The Hepworth Wakefield as “a new state-of-the-art gallery giving London a run for its money” and highlighting it as one of the things that makes Yorkshire the third best region in the world to visit in 2014. Last month saw the gallery, which opened to a fanfare of publicity and praise in 2011, welcome its one millionth visitor.

But while The Hepworth has been the catalyst for a cultural renaissance in the city it’s not the only show in town.

The Orangery, a Grade II Listed building in the heart of the city, is home to Beam, an arts, architecture and learning company, which runs the Wakefield Lit Festival that has attracted the likes of Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and John Cooper Clarke since starting in 2012.

A short walk away is the stunning, Frank Matcham-designed, Theatre Royal, where acclaimed Yorkshire playwright John Godber is now at the creative helm. Across the road work has begun to transform the Grade II Listed Unity Hall into a major music venue, conference centre and creative business hub.

The historic 19th century building stood empty for 25 years falling into a state of disrepair, but it’s now having new life breathed into it thanks to a community co-operative that raised £4m by issuing shares to local businesses. The revamped hall, which includes a 700-capacity music and theatre space, is expected to be open in time for the city’s Long Division music festival in September.

Wakefield isn’t without its problems, though. Like most places it bears the scars of the economic crash and walking through the centre you can’t fail to notice the empty shops and “to let” signs that litter the streets.

Nevertheless, there’s a genuine sense that something is happening here. There was a time when a night out in Wakefield was synonymous with a pub crawl or a visit to one of the numerous nightclubs on Westgate, but that’s no longer just the case.

The Art House, a visual arts organisation based in the city, runs the bi-monthly Art Walk events billed as an alternative night out in the city. The next one takes place at the end of the month involves 20 venues across the city.

“It’s not just arts venues that get involved, there’s dedicated cultural spaces like ourselves and The Hepworth, as well as artist studios through to cafés, bars and architectural practices. There are live performances, exhibitions and poetry slams, you name it, it’s happening,” says The Art House’s project manager Lesley Farrell.

“Lots of other places do what they call an art trail but they tend to be an annual or bi-annual event and I think the Wakefield Art Walk is unique because it’s almost like having an arts festival every other month for one big night.”

The Art House was set up in 1996 to support disabled artists and provides 13 artists studios, as well as a development programme for both disabled and non-disabled artists, and later this year work starts on the conversion of the neighbouring Drury Lane Library, another Grade II Listed gem, to create 34 new artists studios and new public areas.

Heidi Waddington, marketing and communications manager for The Art House, believes these are exciting times for the city. “Wakefield has always been perceived to be the poorer sister of Leeds culturally, but I think that’s been identified and with all the funding coming to the area there’s been a real push to redevelop and reignite the cultural scene here,” she says. “The Wakefield you see now will be very different from the Wakefield you see in 12 months time.”

Perhaps the most striking symbol of this cultural rejuvenation is the community-driven Unity Hall project. Around £200,000 is still needed to refurbish the main hall, which developers hope will be raised by its share scheme, but the 
scheme shows just what can be achieved when local people work together.

The project is backed by Wakefield Council, which has played a pivotal role in the cultural regeneration that’s reshaping the city. “You’ve got to have the right background mood but you’ve also got to have the right people involved and there are a few movers and shakers in Wakefield who are making things happen,“ says Unity Hall director Chris Hill.

He points to the launch of The Hepworth as being particularly significant because it put an international spotlight on the city. “That was a big moment. The Yorkshire Sculpture Park is great but no one really knows it’s in Wakefield, and it barely is, but The Hepworth is bang on the map and that’s made such a difference.”

Hill, a developer from Leeds, came to Wakefield three-and-a-half years ago and quickly spotted its potential. “In the past all the talent used to be sucked towards Leeds and now it’s finding its own independence,” he says.

“You get half a million people going to The Hepworth each year and at the moment very few visitors come to the city centre. But with places like Unity, The Art House and The Orangery pulling together there’s a real chance Wakefield can be its own flagship.”

Dean Freeman, the brains behind the Long Division festival, believes that arts organisations are now collaborating much more than they did in the past. “There’s always been things going on here, whether it’s art, music or theatre but people didn’t really mix and suddenly in the past couple of years that’s changed and they’ve started talking to each other.”

The annual festival, set up by Freeman in 2011, holds gigs at venues across the city and has already become a weekend event with people coming from as far away as Portugal and Germany to watch bands play.

“There was a guy who came to the festival last year who’d come on holiday to Wakefield for the weekend so he could go to everything, which I’d never heard of before. But if we can get people here once then they see what else there is and they want to come back.”

Freeman was born and raised in Wakefield and is proud to see the city enjoying a resurgence. “It’s good to see Wakefield getting a bit of recognition. I guess people in big cities are used to that but it was rare for people to come to Wakefield from outside the area and now that’s changed.”

It’s a change, he says, that’s been fired by the people who live here. “It’s exciting because it’s created by ordinary hard-working people who are passionate about what they’re doing, and it’s people from right across the spectrum, it’s musicians, painters, sculptors and photographers.”

He believes that the city has turned what could be seen as a weakness into a strength. “Perhaps a weakness of Wakefield is we don’t have as many people coming to live here, we don’t have a student population moving in. But what that means is you have a lot of local people who live here their whole lives and if those people are engaged in the arts, whether they are now or get inspired by what’s happening in the future, you end up with something unique that you won’t find elsewhere.”

Freeman returned home after finishing university in the North East, but says he was one of the exceptions. “A lot of people once they leave Wakefield don’t come back. I did but there’s plenty who don’t, especially if they’re quite aspirational.”

But he senses this is changing. “There was nothing really to attract me back other than my friends. Whereas if I was finishing university now I genuinely think I would want to come and live here.

“What we have is the foundations of something that can grow. We’re not there yet but the hardest part’s almost done and it’s about letting everyone else know about it.

“There’s stuff happening now but it’s going to get even better, that’s the difference. There’s been so much work put in but we’re just at the beginning.”

Roll call of culture venue

The Hepworth Wakefield – opened to a fanfare of publicity in May, 2011, this award-winning gallery has helped put the city on the cultural map. In December it welcomed its one millionth visitor and announced it had generated just shy of £16m for the city’s economy.

The Art House – a national visual arts organisation, based in Wakefield. This provides 13 artists’ studios and a development programme for disabled and non-disabled artists, and also runs popular Art Walk events.

In April, work is to start on converting the neighbouring Drury Lane Library into 34 artist studios and public spaces – with cash from Arts Council England, the European Regional Development Fund and support from Wakefield Council.

Unity Hall – a community-driven project, is turning this historic 19th Century building into a major music venue, conference centre and creative business hub.