Wakefield - There's so much to see and do in this creative city
PUBLISHED: 00:00 17 September 2018
There’s lots going on in Wakefield so visitors shouldn’t just confine their visit to the nationally famous Hepworth gallery, says Tony Greenway.
According to much of the national press, Wakefield is big on culture and it all happens at The Hepworth Wakefield, the landmark modernist art gallery on the waterfront. They’re only half right. There IS a lot going on in Wakefield creatively speaking, and The Hepworth – named after Wakefield-born sculptor Barbara Hepworth – has been an incredible success story but it’s only a small part of the city’s overall cultural picture.
‘I think people in Wakefield know what great cultural assets and organisations we have here,’ says Katie Town, executive director at Theatre Royal Wakefield. ‘But I don’t think they’re as widely known as they should be. There are lots of people within a 90-minute drive who could be coming to Wakefield and having an amazing time. They could spend time at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (at West Bretton) or the National Coal Mining Museum (at Overton) and then see a show in the evening and still be able to drive back home. I don’t think we’re quite getting those cultural tourists visiting us... yet.’
The Hepworth might be the exception. It’s made a big national splash ever since it opened in 2011 and reached its initial annual target of 150,000 visitors in just five weeks. Then, last year, it was named Art Fund Museum of the Year, the world’s largest and most prestigious museums prize, winning £100,000. ‘The Hepworth serves its local community and contributes to regional tourism too,’ explains Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund. ‘It’s the museum everyone would dream of having on their doorstep.’
Things got even brighter for The Hepworth Wakefield in the 2017/2018 financial year, when the gallery announced that it had attracted 250,000 visitors, a 22 per cent increase on the previous financial year. Simon Wallis, director of The Hepworth, thinks the Art Fund prize has played a part in that.
‘We’ve become a valued social hub in the city and region where different generations can come to socialise, experience great art and learn,’ he says. ‘Winning Art Fund Museum of the Year has undoubtedly helped introduce us to new audiences and helped convince those who have long been meaning to visit to finally make the trip.’
The thing is The Hepworth Wakefield is a little way out from the centre. But once you’ve been to the gallery and marvelled at its exhibitions and collections (there’s a fantastic exhibition by photographer Viviane Sassen which runs until October 7th, for instance) you can catch the free bus which takes you around the city. It’s a great idea. Every Yorkshire city should have one.
I got off the bus near the Frank Matcham-designed, Grade II listed Theatre Royal to visit its new Centre for Creativity, the industrial-looking £1million glass and steel extension which opened in the summer and features the venue’s new Walker Studio and a cafe.
‘It looks as though Shoreditch has come to Wakefield,’ says Katie Town. ‘It’s going to radically enhance comforts for our audiences, whether they’re seeing something in our main auditorium, or whether they are seeing something in our new Walker Studio. It’s also open during the day, so people are coming in to have a coffee. We very much see it as a community asset.’ A trip to the theatre is essential for culture vultures: its artistic director is John Godber, writer of Bouncers, Up and Under and Teechers, and one of the most popular and performed playwrights in the UK. This September, his comedy Seasons in the Sun plays on the main stage, while Bouncers opens in January.
After coffee at the theatre it was over to the Wakefield Museum to check out a small but fascinating set of original portraits of Roald Dahl characters by artist Quentin Blake (running until January 2019). Then I wanted to check out The Art House, an organisation which was established in 1994 by a group of disabled and non-disabled artists. The Art House, in Drury Lane, includes 50 artists’ studios and hosts exhibitions that are open to the public. ‘We’re bursting at the seams with creativity,’ says Jen Garrick, The Art House’s marketing and communications director. ‘We have printmakers, painters and sculptors, a fashion designer, costumiers, a tailor, and photographers. We also have additional buildings in Wakefield in which we house creative businesses of varying types.’
The Art House is part of Wakefield’s Cultural Consortium, a three-year Arts Council-funded initiative where creative organisations work together to shout about themselves a bit more and hopefully increase the amount of cultural tourists coming into the area. Other members of the consortium include The Hepworth Wakefield, The Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the National Coal Mining Museum and Wakefield Theatre Royal.
Getting visitors to see the centre of the city in a creative light is a constant challenge, admits Jen Garrick. ‘Part of the problem is the disparate nature of Wakefield,’ she says.
‘The Hepworth is an incredible resource and we partner with them regularly – it’s a very tight and small creative eco-system here. But the reality is that people drive to the city and go straight to The Hepworth, or they get the train in but the journey they take from the station to The Hepworth doesn’t necessarily lead them through the other things happening here, like us, like the theatre, like the cathedral.’
It’s still early days but Jen is optimistic that Wakefield’s reputation as a cultural and creative hub is on the rise. In July, Wakefield Council announced its new economic strategy, part of which aims to put Wakefield’s cultural and creative strengths front and centre and, next year, Wakefield will be a stop on Yorkshire Sculpture International, the UK’s largest event celebrating sculpture (June 22nd-September 29, 2019).
‘There are some really exciting things happening here,’ agrees Jen. ‘People can see world class art for free, by and large, and have an amazingly cheap day in Wakefield! There’s a lot of good work going on and a lot of people pulling in the same direction, so it feels as though momentum is growing.
‘It’s an exciting time with new developments happening all over the city and great partnerships taking place. Someone described the atmosphere as “fizzy” the other day. I think that’s a very good description.’