THE world is taking Wakefield seriously, thanks to a bold statement in art. David Pickersgill reports. Pictures by Matthew Page.
WHEN national news bulletins send reporters to Wakefield, the city features on The Culture Show and the BBC’s coverage of a Rugby League Challenge Cup tie starts by assessing the merits of two avante garde 20th-century sculptors, then clearly something significant is afoot.
Thus it was for several slightly surreal days in mid-May, when the focus of their attention was an uncompromisingly angular grey concrete building on the bank of the River Calder – The Hepworth Wakefield.
Several years, £35m and no little controversy in the making, the biggest new art gallery outside London in many years has certainly put Wakefield in the spotlight for the moment. Early visitor numbers are impressive, critical reaction has been positive and many of the people who condemn the brutalist architecture of its exterior have reacted with surprise and delight to the light and space inside David Chipperfield’s structure.
Advance predictions are for just short of 150,000 visitors per year with, it is hoped, a high proportion of these coming from outside the immediate area and thus bringing money into a city centre which had been struggling economically long before the expressions “credit crunch” and “bank bailout” entered everyday conversations.
How the figures stack up in the long term remains to be seen but the opening weekend visitor numbers exceeded the 10,000 forecast by more than 50 per cent and hit 100,00 within five week, so the omens are good.
Wakefield Council leader Peter Box has been a passionate advocate of the regeneration potential of The Hepworth Wakefield in the face of the project’s critics. Commenting on the gallery’s first two days in business.
He said: “The opening weekend was a phenomenal success. I was extremely proud to see so many people and children enjoying this inspiring addition to our district. This is a very proud day and I can’t tell you how proud I am of Wakefield.
“We’re seen as a mining community but we’ve got the two most significant sculptors of the 20th century, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, from the district.”
Gallery director Simon Wallis said he was amazed at the public response to the opening.
He added: “The positive response from visitors has been truly overwhelming and I would like say a huge thank-you to the team and our volunteers.
“Their effort and commitment has helped make the launch a real success.”
While the works of Barbara Hepworth and, to a lesser extent, Castleford-born Henry Moore form the bedrock of the gallery’s collections and were the principal justification for its development, its size also means there is somewhere, at last, to display properly the city’s collection of artwork, some of which inspired the young Hepworth.
Gallery curator Dr Sam Lackey said: “Wakefield’s collection was astoundingly innovative. It’s taken a lot of soul-searching to put the exhibitions together. ”
There are two distinct constituencies to which The Hepworth Wakefield needs to appeal in order to be judged a true success.
Although it already seems to have wowed the metropolitan art cogniscenti – and there wasn’t a single reference to flat caps, whippets or brass bands in any of the upmarket Sunday newspapers’ reports – local opinion may be harder to win over.
The long-term key to achieving the latter might be the gallery’s education programme, which will involve schoolchildren, a busy schedule of events and an easy-to-understand website.
“Word of mouth is circling,” said Simon Wallis. “Local people are the bedrock of the success of this place.
“I am in this business to share my passion for art with a wide and broad audience and that is what this building is here to achieve. We will be a fabulous new hub for sculpture.”
Perhaps the last word should be given to Dr Sophie Bowness, Barbara Hepworth’s granddaughter, following her pre-opening preview visit.
She said: “We are tremendously proud that at last we have been able to reveal the work of Barbara Hepworth in the place where she was born and grew up and to give new insights into her practice as an artist. I hope this discovery will be enjoyed by many people in the years to come.”