Barbara Hepworth: A home ground homage

Arts funding is receding but Wakefield is pushing the boat out in a big way. Michael Hickling reports.

Barbara Hepworth's home city has done her proud. They have built a world-class art gallery with her name on it, an expensive outlay which will enhance civic cultural credentials and the artist's reputation.

This is in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, not St Ives, Cornwall, the place that Barbara Hepworth is mostly identified with. Although born in Wakefield, the place does not seem to have had much to offer Barbara and she never settled here as

an adult.

After college in the 1920s, she set up home in London with her husband, John Skeaping, and then as war broke out she moved to Cornwall with the artist Ben Nicholson where they were part of the colony of painters and sculptors that turned St Ives into a powerhouse of modernist ideas. It was here that she died in 1975. Always a heavy smoker, she perished in a fire at her Trewyn studio, aged 72.

So why 35 years on should Wakefield seek to re-establish a flagging connection with their famous daughter? Part of it is to do with art pure and simple. Wakefield Art Gallery has a rich collection of Barbara Hepworth pieces and other modernist works which will now have a new showcase and added to this will be a gift of more than 40 pieces from the Hepworth Estate.

But the logic of spending millions on a landmark building goes beyond aesthetics. Economics is the key factor. The argument goes that the gallery, the biggest purpose-built outside London, will put Wakefield on the map, turning it into a "cultural hub" which will bring in 150,000 visitors a year. It will also regenerate the waterfront area at the southern entrance to the city where the gallery sits on the headland of the River Calder with foundations coming out of the water on two sides.

Constructed as a cluster of trapezoidal blocks of varying size, it's a puzzle to know quite what to make of it at first glance. The architect, Sir David Chipperfield, says he took his cue from low industrial buildings to be found in the area. Don't expect to find anything like the playfulness and drama of another watery edifice, Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum beside the Nervion River in Bilboa which has proved to be an enormous hit in Spain. The Hepworth Gallery, unremittingly grey, is made from concrete with a silky sheen which somehow brings to mind the hue of a stealth bomber. One reader wrote to the local Wakefield newspaper to say it looked like an East German Stasi police headquarters, or a prison.

Maybe unflattering first impressions will change when more people have an opportunity to get inside. Even with workmen still pottering about, the magic that seems absent on the outside was already present within.

These vast, white luminous spaces are sumptuous and awe-inspiring – all the galleries are on the upper level and have natural lighting. And way before the finishing touches were being applied, word had gone out to local youngsters that this was the cool place to be. Among the workmen's materials stood occasional shapes in cardboard, evidence that young hands were discovering this to be a sparky sort of environment for creative hands.

David Liddiment rubs his own hands at the prospect of cultivating vigorous youthful growth. The glory of this garden for him is that it's local, his own home town being a few miles to the south west. His mother and other members of his family are still in Huddersfield where he was born and went to school. As the chairman of the Hepworth Wakefield Trust, he sees the gallery as an opportunity for ordinary people to be part of something that is a world beater. "My job is to make sure it delivers what it promises, not just operationally but fulfils its potential as a centre for creativity and the arts," he says. "It will be a living, breathing creative place, not a museum."

This impulse goes back to his own professional beginnings when he joined Granada Television in Manchester. It was a time when Tony Warren and Jack Rosenthal walked the corridors of Granadaland which offered a kind of adventure playgound for talented northern writers and broadcasters. They were just as good as London and they were going to prove it by their work. "The idea of a premium investigative programme like World in Action being made in Manchester was unthinkable," says Liddiment.

He was a lowly programme trails promotion scriptwriter. But not for long. "There were fantastic opportunities because they didn't buttonhole you." Before long he was flying round Yugoslavia as an investigative reporter on a big story for World in Action.

Subsequently many of the programmes which set the seal on Granada quality, such as Coronation Street, bore his name. He is now boss of the country's biggest production company, All3 Media and is on the BBC's Board of Trustees.

Regional television is now a shadow of its former self and Liddiment regrets the fact that the North's influence is much diminished by this.

"The mindset is that London is the only place to be – this country more than most is metrocentric. We owe it to people who don't live in the south east to ensure that they have the same access to world-class art. We've already been in talks to schools and there a huge amount going on, work bubbling under."

It's an evangelical voice but not an expert one. "I'm not experienced in the visual arts. I was aware of Barbara Hepworth as a boy and of Henry Moore when I visited Huddersfield Art gallery. I am interested in the visual arts but just as a punter – I go to galleries and I buy pictures.

"There are so many examples of the arts acting as a catayst for change. You can see here in this part of Wakefield that it's ripe for regeneration. In difficult economic circumstances the role the arts play is more important and these are challenging times."

The Hepworth Wakefield will open this spring and it is surely right (Castleford having rather belatedly picked up the torch as well) that neighbouring towns that gave birth to two giants of 20th century British art should properly mark the fact. Leeds already has the Henry Moore Institute which runs a world-class programme of research and events.

Henry Moore, the son of a miner at Wheldale pit, had a longer road to travel than Barbara Hepworth whose background was middle class. Born in 1903, her father Herbert was a civil engineer for the West Riding County Council who became county surveyor and took his daughter with him in the car on jobs all over his patch. After the First World War, Barbara became a fellow student of Henry Moore at Leeds School of Art. Later they went on holiday together with other artists at Happisburgh on the Norfolk coast.

She won a West Riding Scholarship for a year's travel abroad which took her to Florence, after which her connection with Yorkshire was more or less over. Except that inside her head, she never left. Artistically it remained a permanent feature of her work and she wrote later: "All my early memories are of forms and shapes and textures. Moving through and over the West Riding landscape with my father in his car, the hills were sculptures: the roads defined the form..."

Antony Gormley, creator of the Angel of the North and perhaps the one living British sculptor who now has a public profile similar to Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, has no doubt about the value of the 35m being spent in Wakefield.

"The Hepworth Wakefield will become a place of pilgrimage for all lovers of sculpture," he says.

YP MAG 8/1/11