The Hepworth Wakefield, Gallery Walk, Wakefield, WF1 5AW – Visit Now
Since it first opened its doors in 2011, The Hepworth Wakefield, near Leeds, has rapidly become one of the leading cultural highlights of 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 Tate Modern), on the strength of the gallery’s “breath-taking” exhibitions, booming visitor numbers and brand-new Hepworth Prize for Sculpture, launched in 2016. Indeed, we can only agree with the Director or the Art Fund, Stephen Deuchar, who described it as “the museum everyone would dream of having on their doorstep.”
Recent major exhibitions such as Anthony McCall: Solid Light Works and Disobedient Bodies: JW Anderson Curates have received widespread acclaim, while the building itself is also a work of art. Designed by David Chipperfield and shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize 2012, its triangulated structure mirrors the form of many of the sculptures created by its tribute, Barbara Hepworth. Its slate grey exterior reflects the River Calder that it rises out of and signals that this is a gallery with intent, while its pristine interior is flooded with natural light. “They dammed the river to build it so that the gallery was right in the middle of the river, and in the middle of the city,” said the Hepworth’s previous curator Sam Lackey. “It’s completely the opposite to the Barbara Hepworth Museum in Cornwall, or even Yorkshire Sculpture Park.”
YSP, a short drive away, is indeed the polar opposite. The majority of its sculptures sit in 500 acres of rural parkland, while The Hepworth overlooks a dual carriageway. “The decision was made to put it in the city because Barbara Hepworth came from a northern, industrial town,” said Lackey. “She was motivated by the industry of the area and the figure in the landscape, not just by the landscape.”
Local lass Barbara Hepworth drew parallels between the “grim industrial towns” of Yorkshire and the “magnificent beauty of the West Riding”, and once wondered if it would be possible to “just put sculptures on hill sides”. At YSP she got her wish – her magnificent The Family of Man is on show here – yet inside The Hepworth, the enormous, punched-out windows also make visual the connection between her work and the landscape that inspired them.
Although dedicated to the sculptor, the work on display here is diverse: the abstract watercolours and collages of, say, Eduardo Paolozzi contrast to Hepworth’s perfect forms, in turn a contrast to the contemporary (and often newly-commissioned) artworks that also fill the temporary galleries. The Hepworth’s collection is substantial, its 5,000 permanent works drawn from the original Wakefield Art Gallery that preceded it; the collection displays are also beefed up by loans from the likes of the Tate and the British Council.
As for Barbara Hepworth, there is one particular work that sums up what makes her museum work so well. It’s a white marble sculpture called Quiet Form. On loan from Wakefield Girls’ School, it sat in the headmistress’s office for years, unseen by anyone other than errant schoolgirls. For a long while after The Hepworth opened it was placed in the gallery opposite Pelagos, a show-stopper sculpture on loan from the Tate (now returned).
This is a gallery rooted in its community – during the weekend, locals pour across the bridge, shopping bags in hand, kids charging about the adventure playground – that nevertheless gets the attention of art-lovers from across the country. For all its high art content, it is a wonderfully welcoming place. Plus, there’s a brand new café to check out!
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