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The Hepworth Wakefield gallery opens, the UK’s largest purpose-built exhibition space outside London
May 19, 2011 | By:
The Hepworth Wakefield gallery should prove a valuable addition to both the arts and local landscapes, says Michael Prodger

Hepworth Wakefield GalleryIn a happy accident of timing, the Government spending cuts arrived too late to stymie several major arts projects. While our public museums and galleries look nervously to a future where funding will be lopped by 15 per cent and more a year, a cluster of galleries has a much cheerier prospect. Chief among them is the new Hepworth Wakefield Gallery, which opens on 21 May.

The gallery, the largest purpose-built exhibition space outside London, was designed by the Sterling Prize-winning David Chipperfield and will showcase the work of Wakefield’s most famous daughter, the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. It cost £35 million to build and the local council now has to save £67 million over the next four years. So if the project were just starting it would already be dead in the chilly waters of the River Calder.

The building itself is striking. With its cluster of concrete-skinned boxes of different heights, sizes and rooflines sitting among industrial buildings by the river’s edge, it is as if a miniature pueblo blanco has landed in Yorkshire from Andalucia. It has no dominant aspect, no grand porticoed entrance, but is meant to nod to the area’s manufacturing past.

It is part not just of Wakefield’s regeneration but, together with the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds (Moore and Hepworth studied together), characterises this part of Yorkshire as the birthplace of modern British sculpture.

Perhaps the cultural tourism it will help attract will sweeten the financial pill. In 2008, Liverpool invested £130 million during its reign as European Capital of Culture, but generated extra revenues of six times that amount.

Hepworth-Wakefield Barbara Hepworth sculptures

The danger, as with many of the new museums internationally over the past 15 years, is that the building itself might be more interesting than the exhibits it holds.

The Hepworth family, though, has just given a collection of 44 of the sculptor’s working models to form the centrepiece of the gallery’s 20th-century British art holdings. It also has older collections of more local interest. And anyway, galleries have always been about the setting as much as the art.

Barbara Hepworth sculpture

The museum’s centrepiece is a collection of 44 pieces donated by Hepworth’s family. Thanks to The Hepworth Wakefield

Chipperfield was a slow-burner as an architect but his updated Mies van der Rohe aesthetic of high-spec minimalism, long popular in Europe, is now coming into its own here.

In fact, it is an exceptional time for Chipperfield. He is already the architect of the Henley Rowing Museum, and his seaside Turner Contemporary gallery has just opened in Margate. Add in Eric Parry’s eye-catching new extension to the Holbourne Museum in Bath, and eminent critic David Sylvester’s warning that “Art has no greater enemy than the architect” seems an aphorism without foundations.

Read about construction of the Hepworth Wakefield Gallery