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Beyond Tate – The Rise and Rise of Regional Galleries

How The UK Art Scene Is Thriving Beyond The Banks Of The Thames.

In just five years, the Hepworth Wakefield Gallery has gone from ‘really?’ to really important in the world of visual art. As the gallery’s director Simon Walls himself admits, a West Yorkshire town best known for growing rhubarb and former glories in coal mining and rugby league, “probably wasn’t top of the list for anyone in the international art world as a place to show. Our first five years have been about ensuring that people realise that major world-class visual art is not the exclusive preserve of London.” Over 1.5 million visitors since the opening in May 2011 back up Wallis’s claim.

It’s a success story to counter those more commonly written about the UK arts sector in recent years: about funding cuts and then more funding cuts. “Everything has had to take a hit, not just visual arts,” Wallis admits. He believes that arts and culture must, and can, find alternative means of funding. “We need to get back to a situation where wealthy people rediscover the philanthropic spirit that helped build this country, as we had back in Victorian times. Wealthy people need to be philanthropic, to distribute wealth in interesting ways for everyone to benefit.” The Hepworth has received £7m worth of artworks as gifts during its lifetime.

And yet, the British visual arts scene is dominated by Tate, and Tate Modern in particular. The former power station on London’s Southbank is the world’s most popular modern art space, which attracted 4.7m visitors in 2015, and the opening of its £260m extension is the art news of summer 2016. A lesser-known fact is the Plus Tate initiative, a partner scheme enabling the UK’s regional cultural institutions to work closer together and with the help of Tate.

World-class art can be discovered in fabulous places around the country

In 2014, the 18 Plus Tate partners, including the Hepworth Wakefield, MIMA in Middlesbrough and Turner Contemporary in Margate (also opened in 2011 and, like the Hepworth, housed in a building designed by the award-winning architect Sir David Chipperfield) attracted 3.3m visitors – about two-thirds of Tate Modern’s annual attendance. In 2015, a further 16 organisations joined Plus Tate. When the next visitor numbers are tallied, the extended regional family will be challenging its metropolitan big brother for the top spot.

Wallis sees Plus Tate as more than just improving public access to great art. “It was the ambition of Nick [Sir Nicholas Serota, director of Tate art museums and galleries] to push Tate in so many directions to make culture-led regeneration happen throughout the UK, with visual art at its core.” That regeneration has come in physical form, with the new gallery buildings and associated developments, as well as economic benefits for surrounding businesses.

It’s estimated that Hepworth Wakefield has boosted its local economy by £20m; it cost £35m to build, but the Wakefield local authority art collection, of which Hepworth’s collection forms an increasingly large part, contains works by the sculptor Henry Moore, one of which, Wallis says “could have paid for the entire project.” (He is speaking metaphorically; all UK authority art collections are held in trust for the public.)

Hepworth Wakefield was named in honour of Moore’s former art school classmate, fellow West Yorkshire native and (gentle) rival sculptor Barbara Hepworth. Her works form a major part of the gallery’s collection, and some rarely seen major late-career Hepworth pieces will be on display in London from July 2016 at the Phillips auction house gallery. Wallis is well aware of the opportunity the show provides for his gallery and his gallery’s guardian angel.

“It’s a wonderful occasion to share a passion for an artist of Barbara Hepworth’s stature with London audiences,” he says, “and to remind them that world-class art can be discovered in fabulous places around the country.”

The Hepworth Gallery’s fifth birthday programme continues in 2016 with a Stanley Spencer exhibition, the Hepworth Prize for Sculpture and more. Click here for further details.