Video: How Wakefield’s Hepworth pulled in a million visitors

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The Hepworth Wakefield has welcomed a million visitors. Arts Editor Nick Ahad on a major Yorkshire arts success story that keeps getting better.

In much the same way you might suspect the invention of the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle (it’s not a triangle) is no more than a marketing idea, you might think the announcement of a millionth visitor is something of a cynical exercise in publicity. It really isn’t.

Great British Bake Off winner Frances Quinn with Pauline Mackiewicz.

Great British Bake Off winner Frances Quinn with Pauline Mackiewicz.

In May 2011, the brutalist, somewhat controversial, Sir David Chipperfield-designed The Hepworth Wakefield opened to the public.

The fact that a special coach was needed to ferry the London media visitors from the train station to the - at the time new - £32m gallery was all the indication needed of what the outside world thought of a new art gallery in the heart of Wakefield. At least, we supposed out loud, they had bothered to come.

The gallery opened in the face of controversy to overwhelmingly positive reviews from those who visited. The city was won over, the visitors were won over and people began pouring through the doors. In the first year a target had been set for visitors - the arts world thrives on setting itself achieve able goals and ensuring those goals are well measured. The first target was an annual figure of 150,000. That barrier was breached in the space of five weeks.

The gallery was then due, two-and-a-half-years down the line - that is around about now - to have celebrated around 400,000 visitors.

One millionth visitor Pauline Mackiewicz from Australia.

One millionth visitor Pauline Mackiewicz from Australia.

Yesterday the Wakefield gallery celebrated its one millionth Visitor.

“It is so much more than we could have hoped for,” says a jubilant Simon Wallis, director of The Hepworth Wakefield.

“We’ve given it heart and soul since we’ve been open. The estimate was for us to have just shy of 400,000 visitors by this point, so we have done better than double that number. It is a testament to the interest people have for the arts and culture in Yorkshire.”

What Wallis couldn’t have estimated for was the fact that it would be a visitor from out of town that would take the honour of being visitor number 1,000,000. A visitor from way out of town.

At shortly before 11.30am yesterday Pauline Mackiewicz went through the doors of The Hepworth, the visitor counter clicked to 1million and Pauline could tell her friends at home - in Sydney, Australia, that she was the one to have the honour.

She says: “I feel very privileged to be chosen as the millionth visitor, it was so unexpected and a little overwhelming. It’s my first visit to the gallery and what a stunning building it is. I have loved seeing the Hepworth plasters and that amazing view over the wier - and thanks to my friends from London and Wakefield who brought me here today.”

While Pauline hadn’t made the trip from Australia just to visit Yorkshire’s newest purpose built gallery, there are visitors that have. Earlier this year the Yorkshire Post visited The Hepworth when it became clear that in Yorkshire we had a major success story from the arts world in our region. While there we met a family from Canada who had been lured to Yorkshire because of the literally unique offer of sculpture we now have in the region.

It is visitors like the Canadian family, and now Pauline from Australia, who have helped turn The Hepworth into one of the biggest success stories in Yorkshire’s cultural life in recent years.

It’s easy to wonder, however, when figures are quoted, if they have been massaged to make for a good news story. If you set yourself a target for visitor numbers in a first year and then beat it in five weeks - have you been a little generous with the numbers?

“They are national benchmark,” says Simon Wallis.

“When I started the job I actually increased the figures because I could see how significant this place was going to be.”

So the goalposts were not widened to help the gallery be able to claim major success. It actually has been as popular as the statistics tell us.

“I took national benchmark figures and they were slightly less than what I expected would happened here. It is only when you’re up and running that you get a sense of how enthusiastic people are going to be about a building and then you think about how you build on that enthusiasm,” says Wallis.

“The figures were certainly not plucked out of thin air.”

Another significant figure in all of this is £16m. A little shy of that amount has been brought into the Wakefield economy by visitors coming to The Hepworth. In a time of austerity when the notion of public funding for the arts is under what some consider ideological attack, it is important that there are case studies to demonstrate the value of investment in culture. While The Hepworth cost the taxpayer plenty on both a local and a national scale, the benefit is not just clear - it is also demonstrable.

The Hepworth celebrated the arrival in the gallery of Pauline Mackiewicz yesterday morning with the help of the winner of this year’s Great British Bake Off Frances Quinn, who created a Hepworth-inspired shortbread. Pauline also won a prize that actually holds the key to why The Hepworth has been the overwhelming success we have witnessed.

The prize includes a tour of the four Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle venues with the people who actually run the venues.

Those venues are The Hepworth Wakefield, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Henry Moore Institute and the Leeds Art Gallery.

While the latter three of those venues have been established in Yorkshire for some time, it was the arrival of The Hepworth that crystallised something. The Sculpture Park is in the Wakefield district, but being down in the grounds of Bretton Hall it felt - to outsiders at least - that the link between it and the art venues in Leeds was tenuous. The Hepworth has provided something that bridges the gap, a venue that has proved entirely that the adage ‘stronger together’ is entirely true.

There is another element.

In each of the four venues that make up the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle, there are people who are approachable, who care about sharing the art in their venues with people - people from around Yorkshire and as far away as Australia. This new sense of making art absolutely accessible to anyone is led by Peter Murray at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Lisa Le Feuvre at the Henry Moore Institute, both Nigel Walsh and Sarah Brown at Leeds Art Gallery and since before it opened, Simon Wallis at The Hepworth Wakefield. “One of the things that has helped enormously in the success of The Hepworth has been having neighbours like YSP,” says Wallis.

“That paved the way for The Hepworth as did other near neighbours in Leeds with Henry Moore Institute and Leeds Art Gallery. We knew we were sharing audiences and that was the reason we decided it would be a good idea to work together under the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle banner.

“For too long people who ran galleries were authority figures who wrote long texts on the walls that told you how to think or feel about a piece of work and that’s just not the way we do it any longer.

“We lived in an altered social landscape in which people are much more interested in having conversations with each other. One of the reasons galleries across the country have been so successful in the last few years is because they are one of the last few social hubs where you can get an intergenerational exchange, you can see grandparents standing in front of work having a debate with their children or grandchildren. I think this notion of people feeling more empowered to argue back and have their own interpretations of something is great. The truth is there is no qualification needed for having an experience of great art, you just need to be alive.”

When you have a building like The Hepworth and inspiring leaders like Wallis, good things will come. A million people will tell you so.

nick.ahad@ypn.co.uk