It was on January 12, 1917 that the industrialist and philanthropist Thomas Robinson Ferens bought a plot of land in the centre of Hull to build a brand new gallery. So it was something of a happy coincidence that exactly 100 years on the gallery which bears his name reopened its doors following a £5m renovation project.
The Ferens Gallery will be a key venue as Hull embarks on its year-long reign as UK City of Culture and at yesterday’s preview its ambitions were clear. As well as hosting this year’s Turner Prize and planned exhibitions of work from the likes of Francis Bacon, a rare 700-year-old panel painting by Pietro Lorenzetti will now take pride of place in the already impressive collection.
Christ between Saints Paul and Peter, which dates from around 1320, was saved for the nation thanks to a fundraising campaign launched by the Ferens and following a four-year conservation effort it is now being displayed for the very first time alongside a number of early Italian Renaissance masterpieces on loan from The National Gallery.
Curator of art at the Ferens, Kirsten Simister, said: “Hull has gained something very special. A lot of the investment has been in the structure of the building, improving the humidity and lighting systems and we were worried that people would think not much had changed.
“But actually in the last six weeks as I have watched our 30 staff bring back 3,500 works of art, it does look and feel like a different place. Unveiling the Lorenzetti for the first time since its restoration is an incredibly exciting moment for the gallery and none of this would have happened had Hull’s bid to become UK City of Culture not been successful.
“It has already been the catalyst for so much change in the city and the new look Ferens is absolutely part of that.”
Since closing 16 months ago, the gallery has undergone the biggest improvement project in its history and as well as an extended café and gift shop, it also now boasts a brand new children’s gallery. The investment is part of a £100m programme to improve Hull’s cultural offering and despite the tough financial climate, Deputy Leader of the City Council, Councillor Daren Hale gave assurances that there would be no cuts to the arts in the foreseeable future.
He said: “Some authorities have made cuts in that area, but it is not a journey that Hull is going to go on. We know the impact that the arts and culture can have and it’s something that we want to embrace and nurture. It is too important to do anything else. These improvements mean that the Ferens is a lighter, more exciting place to visit as well as ensuring that the gallery’s wonderful permanent collection and visiting exhibitions are presented in the very best environmental conditions.
“This year residents and visitors will be able to see world renowned master works on display in Hull like never before. Since the beginning of the year we have shown the world what Hull can do and it is now the gallery’s time to shine.”
The gallery’s permanent collection includes work by Frans Hals, Canaletto, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth as well as newly acquired contemporary art. It reopens to the public today when visitors will also be able to see work from the gallery’s annual Open Exhibition, selected by a panel including Dr Gabriele Finaldi, director of the National Gallery and Hull-born actress, Maureen Lipman.
• The competition to become UK City of Culture 2021 was officially launched at the newly reopened Ferens Art Gallery in Hull.
Minister for Digital and Culture Matt Hancock said: “The UK City of Culture is not only a prestigious title but, as Hull has shown, it is a great opportunity to use culture as a catalyst for economic and social regeneration.
“It showcases the unique identity of our cities, helps boost tourism, and raises the profile of art and culture. I hope to see plenty of ambitious, exciting and innovative bids for 2021, but for now and for 2017 this is all about Hull.”
Bids must be submitted by April 28. The winner will be announced in Hull in December.