Will Gompertz and the Great British art revival

Will Gompertz is hosting the event in Wakefield this week. (BBC/Jeff Overs).
Will Gompertz is hosting the event in Wakefield this week. (BBC/Jeff Overs).
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Will Gompertz is hosting The Hepworth Prize for Sculpture in Wakefield this week. The BBC’s Arts Editor tells Chris Bond why he believes the arts are alive and well in Britain.

WILL Gompertz is a big fan of The Hepworth Wakefield.

Art space: The Hepworth Wakefield hosts the UK's first sculpture prize.

Art space: The Hepworth Wakefield hosts the UK's first sculpture prize.

He first visited the gallery ahead of its grand opening five years ago and the BBC’s Arts Editor is back there this week when he will be hosting the inaugural Hepworth Prize for Sculpture.

The £30,000 biennial award - backed by The Yorkshire Post - is the UK’s first ever prize for sculpture and a big coup not only for the gallery, but Yorkshire too.

The prize recognises a British or UK-based artist who has made a significant contribution to the development of contemporary sculpture, with the winner announced by artist Chris Bailey on Thursday.

Gompertz believes prizes like this can be important in raising the profile not only of artists but museums and galleries, too. “Their real purpose is publicity and generating interest in a noisy old world,” he says.

He points to the success of the Turner Prize which will be hosted by Ferens Art Gallery as part of Hull’s year in the limelight as UK City of Culture 2017. “The reason the Turner prize was created in the first place was to create a conversation around contemporary British art and I think it’s done that.”

This new sculpture prize is a feather in the cap of The Hepworth Wakefield which since opening in 2011 has established itself as one of the most important art galleries in the country.

“I’m a massive fan,” says Gompertz. “It has done enormously well and what’s so exciting is not only that it’s brought attention to the area and brought in tourists, but the local community has really warmed to it. I think it’s a beautiful building and a really impressive design, plus it’s in the home of one of my favourite artists.”

The fact that The Hepworth has flourished in Wakefield rather than bigger and more glamorous cities like say Leeds or Sheffield vindicates the bold decision to build it there. “It’s about authenticity. It’s the right museum in the right place themed around the right artist. Barbara Hepworth really did live around Wakefield and look at the hills which informed her sculpture,” says Gompertz.

“If you want a sense of Shakespeare go to the Globe. If you want to get a sense of Barbara Hepworth and the context in which she worked you need to go to Wakefield.”

It’s less than 30 years since Leeds Council baulked at paying £600,000 for Antony Gormley’s proposed Brick Man - a 120 ft tall sculpture that would have stood near the city’s train station. But the success of The Hepworth and other museums and galleries like the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery and Salts Mill near Bradford are an indication of how attitudes towards art have changed.

“If you look at the Turner Prize, at one time it was derided as a national joke and now it’s taken seriously. It used to be the case that we just revered the old, but people have never been as interested in the art of their time as we are today and The Hepworth is a really good example of somewhere having the confidence to put modern art in front of people.”

He points to the importance of Yorkshire Sculpture Park, too. “It’s really important part in all this. It has helped make the area one of the most important in Europe for the study and appreciation of sculpture. But it’s inconceivable that either of those would have worked 30 years ago.”

So what’s behind this renaissance of interest in the arts? “We live in a much more visually literate world through films, TV and advertising. But I think you can probably trace it back to Charles Saatchi and that gallery he had on Boundary Road in North London which changed the game. It made contemporary art hip. I remember Damien Hirst telling me he went to college because he wanted to make art to go into Boundary Road.

“So although contemporary art became contentious it got on the agenda and we got to know the characters, people like Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, and art stopped being something that was sealed off for connoisseurs and the establishment and something that was part of popular culture.”

The arrival of Tate Modern built on this momentum as did John Major’s decision that a large chunk of Lottery money should be funnelled into arts projects. “That transformed the face of Britain because suddenly these fantastic museums and galleries started popping up all over the country and people responded to them.”

That’s not to say that everything is rosy. It’s been said that for every pound spent in the arts it generates a further £6, yet it is often the first thing under threat when the public purse strings are tightened.

“In London the big museums, while you can’t cut them forever, are more robust because of their business models and they can get rich philanthropists to come in,” says Gompertz. “But this is much harder to do outside London and those museums lead a much more precarious life, so it’s incredibly important they are supported. They provide a huge public service in terms of tourism, education and community and they need subsidy.”

But anyone who doubts the power of art and culture not only to produce a feelgood factor but also to be a catalyst for regeneration and economic growth should pay a visit to Hull, which in less than two months will take on the mantle of UK City of Culture.

“You start these things being very sceptical. When Liverpool was European City of Culture people thought it wasn’t going to work and it was brilliant. I remember watching Liverpool’s confidence increase and suddenly it took off and the city hasn’t looked back.”

He says it’s a similar story in Derry, the UK’s first City of Culture. “If you go to Derry and talk to people on the streets every man, woman and child will say it’s been brilliant. The thing with these events is they are a focal point for getting things done which might not otherwise get done, or which might take decades to get done.”

He points to the work being carried out in Hull. “A lot of the public realm which was very tired, and that’s being generous, is being renovated. The whole Fruit Market area is having massive investment, the Ferens Art Gallery is getting a £5m makeover and I don’t think any of that stuff would necessarily be happening, or happening at the speed it’s happening, without the City of Culture,” he says.

“I think how Hull has responded is terrific and I anticipate a really good year that will change the city. Hull is one of those places, it’s a bit of an outpost, yet if you speak to the people there they really feel they have an opportunity to tell the world their story - and the world wants to hear.”

We have, he says, come a long way. “Art and culture has become part of our everyday lives in a way that it wasn’t 30 years ago. The quality of exhibitions there are is amazing and people want to go and see them.”

The Hepworth Sculpture Prize

Since opening in 2011, The Hepworth Wakefield has been at the forefront of innovative thinking in the visual arts, delivering outstanding world-class shows featuring the work of acclaimed national and international artists.

The Hepworth Prize for Sculpture is the UK’s first ever prize for sculpture and part of its fifth anniversary celebrations.

This new £30,000 biennial award recognises a British or UK-based artist who has made a key contribution to the development of contemporary sculpture.

An exhibition showcasing the work of the four shortlisted artists - Phyllida Barlow, Steve Claydon, Helen Marten and David Medalla - is on display at the gallery until February 19 next year.