From humble beginnings, Yorkshire Sculpture Park - Britain’s first - has evolved into what is now widely regarded as one of the best places to see contemporary and modern sculpture in the UK and Europe, if not the world.
Peter Murray CBE founded the Sculpture Park in 1977 with a single grant of £1,000 and an exhibition of 31 sculptures.
Over the last 40 years Murray and the team at Yorkshire Sculpture Park have changed the cultural landscape; they’ve brought world-class artists to Yorkshire and won prestigious awards. With the Hepworth’s recent win, Wakefield now boasts two Art Fund Museums of the Year, YSP having won the prize in 2014.
Asked what he’s most proud of, Murray talks about visitors and about education.
He said: “We’ve generated an audience that really loves YSP and love it because of the art. But we haven’t compromised – we’ve brought the audience with us. Everything we do here is underpinned by education.”
Leading a postgraduate course in Art Education at Bretton Hall College in 1977, Murray was keen to use the landscape for art. He wanted to make art accessible, for students to experience the physical aspects of a sculpture – to be able to walk around it, to see and feel the influence of the elements, the wind and rain, the changing light. And so the successful concept of ‘art without walls’ was born.
Besides sculpture and education, Murray’s other great passion is landscape, something which developed in his childhood – he remembers enjoying bus trips from Middlesbrough to Whitby and walks over the Eston hills with his father and brothers.
The Bretton Estate was divided and sold in 1949. Since 1977, Murray and his colleagues have slowly and purposefully reunited the 18th-century 500-acre landscape.
He said: “We’ve managed to bring the designed landscape back together again, to give open access to 500 acres.
"One of the great things about the way the Park has evolved is that it’s organic, we didn’t plan it on a drawing board, we’ve pulled it back together like a jigsaw puzzle.”
When Murray founded the Sculpture Park, he says there was a sense of excitement, of hope, of great potential – Murray knew his combination of art and landscape was different, yet something that the celebrated Yorkshire-born artists Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth both recognised as important and valuable.
“Yorkshire has a great tradition of sculpture – Henry Moore was born in Castleford and Barbara Hepworth was born in Wakefield. There was a willingness from Moore, Anthony Caro and other important British artists to give their support to the Sculpture Park.
“We could sense we were doing something different. Although we didn’t get a lot of public backing at first, we did get a lot from the artistic community and so knew we were onto something that had enormous potential for the future.” He also remembers the early support of Cawood-based artist Michael Lyons and the late Robert Hopper, then the Director of the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds.
One of the biggest challenges Murray faced in 1977 is one that continues today – funding.
“We had many set backs – one of the biggest problems was that we didn’t have any money! But we did have political support, from the Principal of Bretton Hall College Alyn Davies, from Wakefield Council, from Alan Bowness the former director of Tate, and from the late Rudi Oxenhaar, Director of the Kröller-Müller in Holland," he said.
Building a committed team of dedicated staff has, Murray says, been key to our success.
YSP now attracts around 500,000 visitors a year, contributing more than £10m annually to the regional economy and providing jobs for 180 people.
Murray’s focus for the future is sustainability – how to keep the Park going with ever-reducing funds. He’s optimistic in these uncertain times and keen to plan for the future, he wants to invest in infrastructure to serve the growing audience and an additional visitor centre will open in summer 2018.
He added: “We can’t stand still – we’re working in an environment that changes daily and it costs a lot of money to look after that landscape.”