Wakefield - How should the West Yorkshire city shout about its amazing cultural gifts?

PUBLISHED: 00:00 15 October 2013 | UPDATED: 14:58 08 September 2017

The Hepworth, Wakefield

The Hepworth, Wakefield

Archant

Arts and culture are leading the way in the economic regeneration of Wakefield, writes Andrew Vine

There’s a buzz in the air about Wakefield, a sense of optimism and excitement about the future, and it’s coming from an unexpected direction. The great cathedral city built on coal and textiles is in the midst of a radical reinvention as it forges ahead, and this time it’s not industry leading the way – but arts and culture. And Wakefield needs its new direction. It has suffered its fair share of hard times as its traditional industries declined, and is still classified as one of the 70 most deprived areas in the country.

And though visitors are arriving in ever greater numbers, the city needs even more tourism income to help make its ambitious dream of regeneration into a solid and enduring reality. But the signs are good for Wakefield’s bold new departure, which is all set to put it on the national map as one of the great centres for arts and culture. Fittingly, the roots of this renaissance lie in its proud heritage and the work of a group of artists informed and inspired by the city they grew up in.

They are two of the most brilliant British sculptors, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, and one of our best-loved and most-performed contemporary playwrights, John Godber. And it’s the first of those, Barbara Hepworth, whose work and name is spearheading Wakefield’s regeneration, thanks to the state-of-the-art gallery that has become one of the country’s most highly-praised cultural attractions since it opened in May 2011.

The Hepworth Wakefield was described by The Times as ‘one of the world’s top 50 art galleries’. That’s high praise, and a magnificent memorial to Hepworth, born in Wakefield in 1903, who died at the age of 72 in 1975. Her work, and the sculptures of her great contemporary, Henry Moore, born in nearby Castleford in 1898, feature in the gallery, which has proved a huge success. The Hepworth hoped for 150,000 visitors in its first year; it got treble that. Since its opening, 850,000 have passed through the doors of this strikingly original building, its angular lines complimenting the historic warehouse buildings close by on the banks of the River Calder.

The airy, spacious, light-filled galleries of the Hepworth are not only an inspiration for its visitors – which will doubtless soon hit the magical mark of one million. They are also at the heart of the reinvention of Wakefield itself.

The £35m it cost to build The Hepworth Wakefield was the shot in the arm the city needed. This was the financial vote of confidence that prompted funding to pour in – so far, more than £350m into the regeneration of the city’s waterfront, the new Trinity Walk shopping centre, an £8m revamp of Wakefield Westgate railway station, a £140m transformation of Merchant Gate into a business quarter and a new market hall designed by renowned architect David Adjaye.

The Hepworth has become another piece in the jigsaw of creating the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle, one of the world’s great art trails – and Wakefield is at its heart. The Yorkshire Sculpture Park, founded in 1977 in 500 acres of breathtakingly beautiful rolling countryside at Bretton, joins The Hepworth, the Henry Moore Institute and Leeds Art Gallery as part of an unrivalled national trail. Moore, who died in 1986, is at the centre of the park, his unique recumbent figures woven into a landscape that attracts 300,000 visitors a year.

The growing richness of Wakefield’s cultural life has been enhanced by the return of one of its most admired sons, John Godber, who in 2011 announced that he was founding his own company in association with the city’s Theatre Royal, after spending more than 25 years at the Hull Truck Theatre where he had premiered some of the most popular plays in the modern repertoire, among them Up ‘n’ Under and Bouncers.

For Mr Godber, born in the village of Upton, the son of a miner, this was a joyous homecoming which he celebrated with his 60th play, The Debt Collectors, another milestone along a personal journey that took him to Bretton Hall to train as a drama teacher before going on to work at Minsthorpe High School.

The arts have become part of Wakefield’s DNA, part of its nightlife as well as its days. Every other month, there is one of the most vibrant regular events anywhere in Yorkshire. Wakefield Artwalk brings together venues across the city to present a dazzling kaleidoscope of shows, including exhibitions, crafts and performance, with audiences being invited to stroll between them. The next is scheduled for Wednesday November 27th, and details can be found at www.artwalk.org.uk

With such a diversity of events, world class galleries, one of the greatest playwrights of our times, and a determination by the city to build on its growing reputation as a cultural centre of excellence, can it be long before Wakefield decides to stage a full-scale international arts extravaganza as part of the drive to get more tourists in?

It would be a huge boost to the local economy and build on an already growing income from tourism. History is being made in Wakefield, as its arts and cultural life writes another chapter of this city’s proud heritage.

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