How sculpture gained 1.4m new fans in Yorkshire this summer

It may traditionally have been the preserve of the aesthete and the dilettante, but sculpture can claim to have gained 1.4m new admirers among Yorkshire’s hoi polloi this summer.

A six metre-tall Damien Hirst painted bronze sculpture, Hymn (1999-2005), stands in Leeds city centre for the opening of Yorkshire Sculpture International, the UK's largest dedicated sculpture festival.

That, the organisers of the UK’s first festival devoted to the subject will announce today, was the number who interacted with the large scale works by Damien Hirst and others which have been on public display across two cities.

The success of Yorkshire Sculpture International, a season-long exposition funded by the Arts Council and bringing together the resources of The Hepworth Wakefield, the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds Art Gallery and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, has led to the extended loan of four of Hirst’s pieces until 2022.

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Hirst, who grew up in Leeds and studied at the city’s College of Art, has been a prominent supporter of the festival, and has also agreed that his 2009 work, Black Sheep with Golden Horns, can remain in the Art Gallery for a year longer than planned.

Artist Tau Lewis, aged 26, had her first exhibition in Europe at The Hepworth Wakefield in Yorkshire as part of the Yorkshire Sculpture International

The venue had been “an important place to me when I was growing up”, he said.

Of his four works to remain at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park – where he had not exhibited before – he added: “I’ve loved seeing the response to them in that setting, and it blew me away when I first saw them there.”

Two of his other large-scale pieces, Hymn and Anatomy of an Angel, were displayed throughout the summer in the centre of Leeds, and the festival’s producer, Jane Bhoyroo, said the unconventional interaction of members of the public was no less an appreciation of their artistic merit than poring over them in a gallery.

“Whenever I walked past, people were stopping and staring, walking around the statues and taking photos of themselves. It was just the way we wanted people to experience sculpture and a wonderful thing to behold,” she said.

As well as the freely available public art, the festival encompassed school visits, workshops and other events which collectively involved 46,000 people, including 19,000 students. A report on its economic impact will be published later this month, but Ms Bhoyroo said it was already clear that people had travelled to locations in Leeds and Wakefield specifically to see the sculptures.

Sir Nicholas Serota, chairman of Arts Council England, dropped a broad hint that the exercise would be repeated.

“I look forward to future editions of Yorkshire Sculpture International,” he said.

The organisation handed the organisers £750,000 to create what it described as the UK’s first international sculpture project, with initial plans to stage it every three years in the former home of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.

“It’s particularly rewarding to support four of the UK’s leading art institutions, so that they can work together to build on the rich history of sculpture in West Yorkshire,” Sir Nicholas said.

The success of the sculpture expo had demonstrated a public appetite for art that would also fuel the cultural festival planned for Leeds in 2023, its organisers said.

The event had “shown what can be done on the national and even international stage, demonstrating our city’s ability to showcase the work of renowned, international artists in a completely new, inventive and accessible way”, said Kully Thiarai, creative director of Leeds 2023.