Ask Simon Wallis what he thinks about The Hepworth in Wakefield being given the accolade of Art Fund Museum of the Year and he doesn’t pause to draw breath.
“We’d love to get that recognition every year.”
Simon has overseen the development of the internationally-famed gallery since 2008, when it was still in a discussion stage. He was there long before the doors opened. In fact, he was there before the doors were even designed.
And he is still has ambitions – mighty ambitious. Not for himself, but for the Hepworth, and for its associates at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and in Leeds City Art Gallery. The three venues make up the Sculpture Triangle and together have amassed a first-class collection, more than equalling those held in London, and far surpassing those in some of the major cities of world.
Added to that is the Hepworth’s own impressive armoury of statistics. Since it opened, two million visitors have passed through the galleries – footfall for this year alone has already exceeded the ambitious target of 250,000 and 95 per cent of them have rated their experience as excellent.
And then there was that Museum of the Year gong. All of which might have caused Wallis to rest on his laurels a little, but instead even before the acceptance speech was over he was already moving onto something new – and, if he has his way, it will be with us by the close of next year. Certainly by 2019.
“When the green light was given to build the gallery, Sir David Chipperfield was chosen as architect,” says Wallis. “He was asked to come up with something special and that’s exactly what he did. His block design on self-compacted concrete looks stunning from the road and inside the galleries let in the maximum light.
“Sir David has gone onto design other great buildings, including the contemporary art wing on the Metropolitan in New York. The truth is, if we were starting the Hepworth today we wouldn’t be able to afford him.
“However, the problem – and paradoxically the bonus – of siting the Hepworth where it is, right next to the River Calder and a stone’s throw from the Chantry Bridge and Chapel, is that it has a huge space alongside it, currently a turfed lawn.”
Wallis is right, it is a enormous . Over the way are some ancient mill buildings, in burnt red brick. Private developers have pledged to convert the mill structure into a studios for artists and creatives, as well as residential properties, and they will work with the Hepworth on creating additional gallery space.
This will, in effect, continue the up-lift of the area’s boot-straps. But what will happen to that lawn “an unloved strip of land”, which is occasionally used for outdoor events?
It seemed to Simon and his colleagues that this really ought to be a garden and, after a nationwide competition, Tom Stuart-Smith, who has an enviable collection of eight gold medals from the Chelsea Flower Show – three of them for Best in Show – got the gig.
“His brief is to provide an inspiring free public space for the residents of Wakefield as well as visitors to the gallery. We want to use the garden to showcase more sculptures and to welcome in visiting temporary commissions. We have also asked Tom to deliver something which is modern and romantic, and which reflects the Hepworth’s deep connection to the landscape.
“In essence, it will be a major step toward the completion of the regeneration of the Wakefield Waterfront site, and it will work together with City and Provincial Properties, the re-developers of the Victorian industrial buildings.”
An official gallery document emphasises the importance of quality green spaces in urban areas and there is also backing in place to employ a cultural gardener who will curate a programme of outdoor activities. Simon is full of praise for the vision of his local authority, and the backing of the Sculpture Triangle in general.
“It’s not just today. In the 30s it was the tastes and ambitions of the Wakefield Council which started everything off. They acquired a lot of first-rate pieces, where other towns and cities were content with minor works by reasonable artists.
“They had very forward-thinking policies, and they picked and purchased well – extremely well indeed. We would not be here without them.”
It helps, of course, that Barbara Hepworth was a Wakefield lass. While she ended her days in St. Ives – her home there has a fairly large garden where some of her works are displayed – she never forgot her Yorkshire roots and the new garden will be in part inspired by the one created by her in Cornwall.
“It is a magical plot,” says Wallis. “You walk out into it, and you see where Hepworth’s imagination was going. She knew that, to be seen best, and fully appreciated, many of her pieces had to have an outdoor site”.
All of this, naturally enough, will not come cheaply, and the £3m or so needed to realise Stuart-Smith’s vision will have to come from donations – from the visitors, from well-wishers, and from corporate business and arts charities. Simon believes that the county will deliver. Wallis, however, is confident that it can be achieved.
“So many people love our open spaces”, he says. “And I really do think that stems from the fact that we don’t have cities that sprawl. You can be in the middle of Leeds, get a bus or a car, and be out into magnificent countryside in less than a quarter of an hour or so. People are turned on by gardens and greenery and open spaces. They are really connected.
“So, in getting Tom on board, we are assured of a garden where planting is paramount, and it will have plenty of texture and structure. It will form and colour our emotional experience – and of course, the ‘well-being’ agenda is massively important as well.
“It has been horribly overlooked for far too long. This Gallery Garden will be an important experience for all of us, no matter where we are in life”.
He allows, with a big smile, that he is married to an “avid” gardener – his wife Deborah and he have two youngsters – but also admits that he is “very much the occasional assistant, and constant admirer”.
He wants the collection at the Hepworth to grow alongside the new garden, to become “a social space of the very best quality”. And, he is quite happy if visitors to the outdoors remain outside enjoying themselves, and don’t want to stay indoors.
“It is a given that everyone would love it if they do, and if they are curious enough to see what we have to offer, but that is entirely up to them. What county in Britain loves its gardening more than Yorkshire?
“These plans come at the same time that the old worsted mill is also being restored. It has sat unloved for 30 or 40 years, but developers have come along and are giving it an injection of life. They have been hard at work getting rid of a ton of asbestos and about the same weight of ancient pigeon poo! But look what they have achieved at Salts Mill. They’ve got all sorts of creative industries into their buildings and it is a real model for what can be achieved.”
Statistics tumble out of Simon. He is so proud, for example, that £19m worth of artworks have been added to the collection since it opened – all funded by visitors and donations.
“We hope that we will make, and be remembered for, good decisions,”,he says. “You could finish with that line about ‘great oaks from little acorns grow’.”