Since it first opened its doors in 2011, The Hepworth Wakefield has rapidly become one of the leading cultural highlights in the North. In 2017, it won the world’s biggest museum prize, the Art Fund Museum of the Year award, beating off competition from other major contenders including the Tate Modern. The victory was based on the strength of the gallery’s ‘breath-taking’ exhibitions, booming visitor numbers (the gallery reached its initial annual target of 150,000 visitors in the first five weeks) and the brand-new Hepworth Prize for Sculpture, which launched in 2016. Past exhibitions showcasing the best international modern and contemporary art, including rarely seen drawings from David Hockney, photographs by Lee Miller and Solid Light Works by Anthony McCall, have received widespread acclaim.
The £35m building itself is also a work of art. Designed by David Chipperfield and shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize 2012, its triangulated structure mirrors many of the sculptures created by its namesake, Barbara Hepworth – a foremost artist of the 20th century who was born and brought up in Wakefield. Inside, dedicated galleries explore Hepworth’s art and creative process. Outside, the gallery is surrounded by one of the UK’s largest free public gardens, designed by acclaimed landscape architect Tom Stuart-Smith. The gallery’s enormous, punched-out windows also make visual the connection between Hepworth’s work and the landscape that inspired it, including views over the river and of significant local heritage sites such as Wakefield Cathedral and The Chantry Chapel of St Mary.
Although named after the sculptor, the art on display here is diverse: the Hepworth’s collection is substantial, its 5,000 permanent works drawn from the original Wakefield Art Gallery that preceded it, and supplemented by loans from the likes of the Tate and the British Council. Focusing on modern and contemporary British art, the gallery houses pieces by artists including Ben Nicholson, L.S. Lowry, Henry Moore, Maggi Hambling and Martin Parr. This is a gallery that remains rooted in its community, which nevertheless gets the attention of art-lovers from across the country. For all its high art content, it is a wonderfully welcoming place, with an excellent café – described by the Director of Art Fund Stephen Deuchar as ‘the museum everyone would dream of having on their doorstep.’