Art galleries as an essential & inspirational public resource for our daily lives: The Hepworth Wakefield and VAGA
I went to my local art gallery in Brighton Pavilion every Saturday as a child because it was free and very easy to get to. As all kids do, I loved drawing, especially imaginary battle scenes, new football kits and cars. Art was a natural, essential, part of my life. It was what I saw in books, comics and cartoons on the television, and there were always paper and pencils to hand.
I liked art at school better than anything – it made things visible that would otherwise remain locked in your head. I enjoyed how I could make something extraordinary (for me anyway) from so little. It was about the transformation I could make happen through art: I was in control for once, and creating something personal.
Art became a constant source of inspiration and interest. It banished routine, boredom and frustration. I loved thinking about why one artist was perhaps better than another, why one work lodged in my memory and another faded. I liked teaching myself by going to exhibitions, looking at art books and always drawing or photographing things. I gradually immersed myself, as most teenagers do, in music, design, fashion, photography, film, buildings and landscape, and saw how art was linked to all of this as a common thread of inspiration.
I went to art school. I saw exhibitions everyday, and enjoyed walking around my fellow students’ studios afterhours: Who was good? What was being discovered? What was engaging? What was new? What could art be? Who was looking at what? How did they do that? Why did they do that? What should I be doing?
I organised student shows and decided, eventually, to stop making my own art and work in galleries, where I spend most of my time anyway. Public galleries were what made a town or city special for me. They were the places to open up your mind and find inspiration. I’d see exhibitions that fundamentally changed for the better my way of seeing, thinking and feeling. This still happens to me all the time. I wanted to work in these inspirational places that were free to go into, to share a passion for art and test it out and debate it with others.
I initially got jobs, after graduating, working in the bookshops and on the information desks of the Hayward Gallery, The National Gallery and the British Museum. I’m glad I had these experiences of what audiences need and want. I decided to ‘get on’ I’d have to do a nine month postgraduate course in Museum Studies and gained my first curatorial job shortly before finishing the course.
I worked at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, which is an inspirational place set up by Jim Ede in the 1950s, putting modernist art, ceramics and natural objects into his home environment, to which he invited the public. There are no labels – it was all about having your own experience of this beautiful setting where art was what Ede called ‘a way of life’. I enjoyed the relationship between the collection and the contemporary exhibitions so that there was an ongoing dialogue between past and present. It’s something that means a great to deal to me now and I know audiences respond positively to this context. If you haven’t been, you must. It’s so memorable and fascinating.
I then moved on as curator to Tate Liverpool, which played an inspirational part in the city’s embracing and using of culture. The scale of the gallery was far bigger than Kettle’s Yard, and Liverpool was the antidote to gentile Cambridge. The education work and reaching out to new wide audiences was impressive at Tate Liverpool. It broke ground in making art relevant and popular for a very wide public, as it still always does in this transformed and wonderful city.
I moved to London after this to work first at the ICA and then Chisenhale Gallery – whose programme now run by Polly Staple is always vital. It was exciting to be in the capital and be part of a place where so many artists were based. But eventually I was eager to get back to running a gallery that had both a collection and a contemporary programme, which is how I got myself to The Hepworth Wakefield.
I love to see The Hepworth busy with people of all ages and walks of life…everyone, anyone! It’s a social hub for the city. I like to overhear the conversations, observations, debates, enquiries, amusement, frustration, revelations, pleasure, pride…the list of reactions and emotions is endless. I like to watch people looking at art (sounds a little odd I know!). It’s about the positive power of art in our lives and what it reveals to us about ourselves, our sense of place and what might be a better future. It provides meaning and shows us the best of what we can achieve. Art is a vital and essential part of a good life and society, helping things progress and improve, which they always do. Every great city and community always has art at its heart.
The Hepworth Wakefield welcomed its one-millionth visitor last week, in just two and a half year’s since opening. Reaching this milestone offers a timely moment to reflect on the last twelve months of our work as a registered charity. It’s the type of work that is done superbly by every public art gallery up and down the country.
One of the high points of the year was winning the prestigious Clore Award for Learning at the Museum of the Year Awards. It acknowledges the quality of our inspiring work with families, children and young people in the region. We have developed many rewarding and fruitful partnerships with our Local Authority, schools, colleges and universities to ensure our learning programme is a vital and highly valued part of our work. It’s wonderful that we are so well used as an educational resource by people of all ages and interests.
The importance of working in partnership has become ever more pressing in today’s financial climate. In Yorkshire we’re blessed with inspiring neighbours who have come together to create the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle, comprising ourselves, The Henry More Institute, Leeds Art Gallery and Yorkshire Sculpture Park. We work closely together to share and build audiences for art as a significant part of the region’s tourism economy. The Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle is putting our region on the international map as one of the world’s most important places to see and experience sculpture. It’s no surprise given Yorkshire produced Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, two of the twentieth century’s greatest sculptors.
Our regular high-level media presence gives us the reach to build an international audience for the region. The New York Times announced last week that: “Together, Leeds, Wakefield and the Sculpture Park offer an unparalleled and regularly renewed conspectus of modern and contemporary sculpture throughout the year. And Yorkshire has reaffirmed its position on the global arts map.”
The Times included The Hepworth Wakefield in their “Top 50 greatest galleries in the world” list and influential Travel Guide company, The Lonely Planet, described The Hepworth Wakefield as “a new state-of-the-art gallery giving London a run for its money”, highlighting it as one of the three things that makes Yorkshire the third best region in the world to visit in 2014. This media coverage and activity helps build the vital tourism economy.
All this, of course stems, from the inspiring art we exhibit and our relationships with artists. Our collection, which is always on show, features some of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. You can see regularly changing displays of the work Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and their contemporaries each season. Our regularly changing contemporary programme has a meaningful dialogue with the collection, creating a special context for artists and audiences.
We’ve been busy paving the way for our future development and this summer heralded a new initiative for the gallery, with the opening of our 600 square metre contemporary art space, The Calder. Realised in partnership with Wakefield Council, this exciting space has breathed life into the disused 19th century former textiles mill opposite the gallery. It’s a part of the ongoing urban regeneration, in which we are a crucial catalyst.
This expansion enables us to make greater creative use of the magnificent site we occupy on the banks of the River Calder with a programme of contemporary exhibitions, as well as music and events. The inaugural exhibition by Roger Hiorns complemented the installation of his major work Seizure than can now be seen at the beautiful Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
Our new Chief Curator joined the team in September. Andrew Bonacina enables the gallery to gain a broader international reach for our exhibitions programme. We wan to bring greater international dialogue to the region so we have a place in a world economy. To support this ambitious programme we are building partnerships with Trusts and Foundations, private individuals and businesses to work with exciting artists and reach ever widening audiences.
The Arts Council’s innovative Catalyst Arts programme has this year attracted new support for us as a registered charity by allowing us to claim match-funding from Arts Council England on all new donations we receive. Our learning and exhibitions programme is attracting an ambitious and forward thinking set of people who want to support a charity that is making a significant contribution to the region’s brand, economy and education.
Public galleries are where we come together to grow, learn, think and socialise. They play a significant, wonderful part in my life and I know the large growing audiences who use galleries feel exactly the same way. But as public galleries we also evangelise tirelessly and encourage people who have never been to a gallery before to come and experience it for themselves: to bring their own life experiences to bear on the great art we exhibit.
VAGA is a wonderful opportunity to feedback into this shared passion we all have for art and the inspirational public institutions that show it throughout the UK. The broad wide access to art we have is something to be so proud of in this country: it just can’t be rivalled. We are known the world over for our inventive creativity and public art galleries feed and nurture this remarkable generous, open, aspect of our society.
Galleries can, and do, regenerate urban areas, they can, and do, create tourism, they can, and do, create international dialogue, they can, and do, open up our thinking and create immense civic pride. But all this is a wonderful bonus: powerful art has always been a central human endeavour, not just ‘nice to have’ or an ‘arty hobby’, and we need to keep clear, confident sight of its crucial significance and meaning in our public life. Our wellbeing depends on it: we cannot only work and consume.
We can use this public access to great art in so many positive ways, a few of them rightly measurable, most of them so very personal and private. Art is a basic human need and activity and has been from the very earliest times in human history. Art galleries are an inspirational public resource for all our daily lives and VAGA plays a key part in ensuring this will always remain the case throughout the country, and not just London.
We need art to be woven into our working, learning, political and social lives to stay creative and open to the myriad possibilities we have to grasp and build on as a society. Supporting VAGA is one way in which we ensure we don’t let, occasionally, poor short-term thinking and concerns underestimate and undermine the significance and value of the visual arts to the life of this country. We are exceptionally creative people in the UK, the world knows it, sometimes some of us who live here forget this, or take it for granted. Art improves and graces everything: public art galleries provide access to great art, for everyone.