Jenny Layfield: The cultural jewels on your doorstep

Hepworth Wakefield by Marc Atkins.
Hepworth Wakefield by Marc Atkins.
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Hear the words ‘culture’ and ‘Wakefield in the same sentence and there will be a chorus of different responses. Some will begin or end with ‘rhubarb’ and not all of them will be positive. Incredibly, audience research has found that just thinking about Wakefield is enough to stop some people from visiting and so selling the town to outsiders - and even to people within Yorkshire - has not been easy.

But we have to learn to shout about what we have here, because it’s a town with attractions and history most other places would kill for. With The Hepworth Wakefield following in the footsteps of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park having recently been named Art Fund Museum of the Year 2017, Wakefield can now claim to be the only place outside of London to have two winners of this prestigious award. And we haven’t even got to the rhubarb yet. Or the beautiful, vibrant Theatre Royal, the nationally recognised National Coal Mining Museum for England, the exquisite Palladian mansion at Nostell, the towering cathedral, the extraordinary Chantry Chapel, the music-filled Unity Hall, Yorkshire’s longest-running free music festival.

And we shouldn’t be afraid to shout every single one of those gems, because preserving, nurturing and promoting culture is vitally important to society and us as human beings. Culture entertains, thrills, intrigues, educates. It makes us think. It fires our passions. It encourages us on to explore. Consider this for a second: an ever-growing body of evidence gathered by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing clearly demonstrates that arts and culture make an important contribution to good mental and physical health.

And then there are the economic benefits. Visitors continue to stream into the Wakefield district, in ever-increasing numbers. Here’s a snapshot of what’s going on – Yorkshire Sculpture Park attracts more than 500,000 visitors a year; the National Trust property Nostell Priory welcomes in excess of 300,000; The Hepworth Wakefield has clocked more than 1.7m people coming through its doors in just six years; the National Coal Mining Museum has annual visitors of almost 150,000 and the Rhubarb Festival brings in a further 125,000 people.

This is just part of a bigger picture which includes the fact that there are seven million tourism day trips to Wakefield. At the last count, these visitors spend over £350m in the Wakefield district. Every year. And there’s the not-insignificant matter of around 6,500 jobs linked to tourism across the district.

It’s time to recognise the fact that Wakefield has a unique cultural ‘offer’. I know that it’s my job to say that, but you don’t have to just take my word for it. Arts Council England has awarded £223,000 to the Wakefield Cultural Consortium, to further enhance our cultural portfolio and encourage even more visitors to come and see what the district has to offer.

It probably won’t come as a bolt out of the blue to hear that not everyone has recognised that, outside of London, places do exist where culture is an integral part of the economy. Winning funding from Arts Council England means that Wakefield is now in the spotlight as one of a select group of cultural destinations across the country – something we are rightly proud of. On top of this, Wakefield Museums, The Hepworth Wakefield and Yorkshire Sculpture Park continue to receive funding as part of Arts Council England’s National Portfolio Organisation initiative, bringing further investment and focus.

This doesn’t mean that we are resting on our laurels. The Wakefield Cultural Consortium is spearheading the promotion of Wakefield as one of Yorkshire’s leading cultural destinations. All 16 members – local cultural venues, businesses and tourism organisations – are working in partnership to raise the profile of Wakefield’s cultural offer and, importantly, encouraging the public and private sector to work together to support the growth of the local visitor economy.

We are always thinking about tomorrow. There’s always more to come.The Theatre Royal is watching its new, £900,000 Centre for Creativity” take shape, the construction of Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s £3.8m visitor centre is on course for completion next summer and The Hepworth Wakefield is raising funds to create one of the UK’s largest free public gardens by internationally acclaimed garden designer, Tom Stuart-Smith.

Wakefield’s cultural jewels attract visitors from all over the world, let alone the rest of Yorkshire. It’s varied and unique. There’s a lot to see here – and it’s right on your doorstep.

Jenny Layfield Wakefield Cultural Consortium’s new visitor champion.