In the Mainstream Media, it has been described as the largest, purpose-built, new art gallery outside of London. That fact alone is newsworthy. This is an art gallery we’re talking about, not a shopping centre, not an office block — an art gallery. In these times of grotesque capitalism, the boldness of that vision should be celebrated in itself, so before I give an honest review of the building, I congratulate the people behind the project who held their nerve and saw it through to completion.
The opening weekend saw crowds queuing to enter the gallery. How my heart rejoiced to see such numbers. Indeed, such were the numbers that I could not get inside the building on the Saturday, I had to contend with a stroll around the building and observing the supporting, outdoor events.
My visit did not begin well, though. I cycled to the gallery and when I asked a t-shirted volunteer where the bicycle rack was he scratched his head and said he didn’t think that there was one. I was incredulous. Surely, it should be mandatory that any new building of a certain size has to include bike racks as standard. I managed to find a tree near the entrance to the gallery, slim enough for me to get my lock around it, and off I went.
The spaces around the gallery are well thought out and make the most of the pleasant aspects over the river. It was clear that outdoor events of all types could be accommodated in the grounds. The children’s play area is a smart move to get more families to think about visiting the gallery. Across from the play area and hidden behind a bank of portable loo’s I noticed the neat rows of brackets for the bicycles of visitors. Clearly, the army of volunteers in attendance at the Hepworth that weekend might have been better briefed.
The following day, my entire family visited the gallery approximately half an hour before closing time. The crowds were still there but not in the numbers of the day before and we were able to walk straight in and have a quick tour of the building. The building itself is impressive and the galleries are open and inviting. My wife felt that the workshop rooms were poorly situated though — being immediately adjacent to the entrance and one of the first things you see on entry. She felt something grander should have been in its place — a showpiece sculpture in a large space perhaps.
I have to confess that I am not a big fan of Barbara Hepworth’s work, I don’t honestly know why her work is so highly regarded, so most of the pieces in the gallery were of little interest to me. What I was looking for, and what I didn’t see in any number, were the fine art paintings. OK it’s called the Hepworth Gallery, but as the local art gallery was shut down years ago because it was supposed to be incorporated into this new gallery, I was fully expecting to see many works by other artists. I was prepared to reserve judgement on this issue as it is still early days and the building itself continued to enchant me with its windows and corners. Every picture window I stood in and looked out of, revealed just how bold this project is: the building itself serves as part of the bank of the river, the water features of which, danced and shimmered in the sunlight.
Would I make the gallery a regular destination? Yes. But whoever curates the events and artworks in the gallery, has a hugely responsible job as they are going to determine the success or failure of the gallery. Everything depends on it. The building is there and the spaces are there; so far, the gamble has paid off, but the content is going to be crucial.