Tucked away in the backstreets of a small West Yorkshire town is an unlikely star-attraction. Of all the gin joints in the world, Wakefield happens to be the birthplace of one of our most celebrated home-grown sculptors, Barbara Hepworth, and now the backdrop for Art Fund Museum of the Year 2017. As Londoners through and through, it’s often hard to imagine a world outside of the big smoke, but the Hepworth Wakefield is making our eyes turn north.
From dreary pumpkin to golden carriage, this Cinderella story began in 2011 when the largest purpose-built museum for 43 years was built in God’s Own Country. Ever since, the Hepworth Wakefield has become a bastion of British culture, celebrating the likes of local heroes Hepworth and Henry Moore in a permanent collection that would make plenty of London-based institutions balk. Starry additions to the roster of names include David Bomberg, Roger Fry, Patrick Heron and Frank Auerbach, most of which formed the original Wakefield Art Gallery collection. The quality of this 100 year-old collection is a nod to the prowess of director Simon Wallis OBE, who first cut his teeth at the Chisenhale Gallery, ICA and Tate Liverpool before venturing further north.
So it has a great collection of British art – but what else makes the Hepworth Wakefield so special? For one thing the building itself, designed by David Chipperfield Architects for a cool £35 million, is a delight. Rising and falling in peaks of harsh concrete, the structure leads visitors over the crashing River Calder into a serene space where the sound of running water is suddenly silenced. Some of the locals were none too happy about the concrete, utilitarian look of the building, but they’ll change their tune when this museum stands the test of time.
Head honcho Simon Wallis has also crafted a challenging exhibition programme that unites contemporary artists, including Eva Rothschild, Roger Hiorns and Lynda Benglis, with the museum’s bread and butter 20th century collection. The current exhibition focuses on the raucous painter Howard Hodgkin’s time in India; celebrating a joyful period of work by one of our most beloved artists. But there is little time to rest on laurels.
The Wakefield has cleverly carved out a place for itself as a tastemaker in the noisy world of contemporary art. In 2016 the museum launched a brand new sculpture prize for British or UK-based artists (joining the Turner Prize in casting off any age restrictions). What made this prize instantly powerful was the fortuitous fact that the first recipient, Helen Marten, went on to be crowned winner of the Turner Prize a few months later. A handy coincidence for a brand new award.
Most reassuring about the Art Fund’s decision to single out the Wakefield as the best museum of the year is that it is not in London, though past winners have been spread far and wide. As a Londoner perhaps I’ve become too accustomed to a brisk tone or a casual shoulder to the body because the warmth of the Wakefield was a surprise. There is a fierce sense of pride amongst the gallery invigilators and staff, eager to answer any and all questions, which arguably does not exist in London. We are far too busy assuming our galleries and museums are filled with the finest art public money can buy.
As government funding for the arts falls by the wayside, it’s important to give props where props are due. And the Hepworth Wakefield has earned its place on the world stage by showcasing British art in an intoxicating new way.