Carve our names with new pride

Yorkshire has declared itself Europe’s capital of sculpture, can it live up to the billing? Don’t listen to the cynics, says Nick Ahad.

Henry Moore's 'Draped seated woman'
Henry Moore's 'Draped seated woman'

First things first, it’s not a triangle. It’s pretty much a straight line, from Leeds, down the M1 to just south of Wakefield.

But these days marketing, branding and the like, is all.

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So we have: The Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle. A line drawn between the Henry Moore Institute, the place next door, the Leeds Art Gallery, The Hepworth Wakefield and the daddy of them all, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

These four venues come together to make an ambitious scheme that is doing what we do best in Yorkshire – we’re not trying to become the sculpture capital of Europe – we’re declaring, without a backward glance, that we already are.

Since the Arts Council-backed scheme was launched last month, one or two have been a bit sniffy. Influential arts writer Jonathan Jones declared he “nearly choked on my espresso” at the news that we were giving ourselves the moniker of Europe’s Captial of Sculpture. “Go to Napoli,” he suggested. “Or what about Paris?”.

Perhaps the rudest Jones got was when he wrapped up his argument with: “Europe is a living museum of sculpture. In this living museum, Britain is the gift shop, at best, and Yorkshire is a souvenir teapot hidden behind all the reproductions of David.”

Well. It seemed to make sense, then, to put the claim God’s Own County was making under scrutiny. It’s not a huge surprise to hear that the argument stands up. “It’s down, really, to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park,” says Simon Wallis, director of The Hepworth Wakefield. “That was the acorn from which all of this grew. The achievement there inspired us all, what has been happening the park for the past three decades has provided a platform for the rest of us.”

The YSP was the first park of its kind in the UK and remains to this day the largest in Europe. There are two of comparable size in America – but neither of those have a £15m gallery celebrating Barbara Hepworth and a world class institute celebrating Henry Moore up the road. Opened in 1977, the park appears to be really hitting its straps. In 2011 YSP had its best year ever, attracting 350,000 visitors.

Simon Wallis is being modest. YSP, which was established by a man with a dream, Peter Murray, 35 years ago, is still going strong – and Murray remains the man at the tiller – but it is arguably the venue Wallis runs that has galvanised the disparate elements to become a cohesive Sculpture Triangle.

The Hepworth Wakefield opened in May 2011 after a £35m building project designed by Sir David Chipperfield. The visitor attraction estimated that in its first year it would tempt 150,000 people through the doors. The estimate was conservative. That figure was reached in a matter of weeks. A year after the official opening, it had seen more than half a million people pass through, placing Yorkshire’s newest gallery in the top three most visited in the country.

That, surely, is enough to negate the cynicism of the likes of Jonathan Jones.

Wallis, who you will regularly find at his place of work on a weekend, enjoying the venue with his own family, says: “Whenever I talk to visitors who come here, so many of them tell me that they are going to visit the other venues that show off sculpture in the region.This is a lovely way to formalise that shared relationship we all have.”

So what is exactly is this “formalising of the relationship” Wallis is talking about?

The four venues have come together with Welcome to Yorkshire and Arts Council England to create marketing material to promote the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle.

A grant of £170,000 from the Arts Council will pay for the marketing material which will signpost people to the fact that, once they cross the border into Yorkshire, they are in the home of sculpture in the UK and the best place in the whole of Europe to enjoy the art form.

Cluny Macpherson, regional director of Arts Council Yorkshire, says the organisations were already working together – this extra funding will build on some of the work already done.

“I think this funding is timely. The Hepworth has had an exceptionally successful opening couple of years, and we think it is important to build on that success,” says Macpherson. “Since The Hepworth came on board, I think everyone has realised that we have a genuinely unique offer in Yorkshire, in terms of modern sculpture and it makes total sense for the Arts Council to get behind the idea of the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle, so that those organisations involved can work together and tell people the message that if you want to enjoy modern sculpture, there really is no better place, possibly, in the world.”

It all seems to make sense and according to Gary Verity, chief executive of Welcome to Yorkshire, the tourism agency which is throwing its weight behind the initiative, the economic impact of luring art lovers to the county cannot be underestimated.

“We will be highlighting how to get to Yorkshire, how to travel from gallery to gallery as well as signposting visitors towards the great places to stay and impressive places to eat. We will make it easy for those tempted, to come to Yorkshire and see some of the best sculpture in the world.”

The question all of this really begs, is, why? Why are we in this position that one of Britain’s greatest sculptors, Barbara Hepworth, is celebrated in a gallery built miles from where she was born? And why is it that she was born in the same county as another of Britain’s greatest sculptors, Henry Moore, whose international influence cannot be underestimated and has perhaps only grown since his passing?

If you really need an answer, chances are you’re an offcumden. Who could fail to be inspired by the vast, rolling landscapes and the even bigger skies of Yorkshire? Not for nothing are we called God’s Own County.

“It is no coincidence that Yorkshire gave birth to Hepworth and Moore,” says Wallis. “Their work is so connected to the landscape and the landscape is simply so inspiring. I don’t think they could have come from anywhere but here.”

It’s not just the heritage of sculpture we can take pride in, here in Yorkshire, but the future. This year alone The Henry Moore Institute will exhibit sculptures by Dennis Oppenheim, Leeds Art Gallery will be home to the prestigious Northern Art Prize, Yorkshire Sculpture Park will host the biggest UK exhibition to date by British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare and The Hepworth Wakefield will present the UK premier of a dynamic new performance piece by artist Linder Sterling.

The sculptural work we have coming to the county is of a standard that is unmatched anywhere in the world.

Lisa Le Feuvre is a leading academic in the art world. Two years ago she was teaching at Goldsmiths and had no intention of leaving London. Then the job came up running the Henry Moore Institute when the woman in charge, Penelope Curtis, left to become director of Tate Britain.

The job in Leeds was the only one Le Feuvre would contemplate leaving the capital for. She couldn’t really have timed the move more perfectly, taking over the Leeds venue just months before The Hepworth opened.

“If you are interested in sculpture the truth is, you really don’t need to leave Yorkshire,” she says.

“This investment allows us all to work together and shout out that message even more loudly than we have already been doing. If we can work together more closely then the message becomes even stronger. We are the world leaders in sculpture, it’s as simple as that.”

It’s time to start telling folk – doubting Jonathans and all – that the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle makes us the world’s best place for enjoying this art form.