There’s a lot to learn from Wakefield

Simon Wallis, Issue 117/10, p14, 02.10.2017
The museum's successful model makes it an essential, socially engaged addition to Yorkshire's community
Something very special is happening in our part of Yorkshire, the only place outside London to have two Art Fund Museum of the Year winners, after our victory this year (Yorkshire Sculpture Park won in 2014). This ongoing success is in no small part thanks to our ambitious and forward-thinking local council in Wakefield, led by councillor Peter Box.

Since opening six years ago, the Hepworth Wakefield has welcomed nearly two million visitors. This is no mean feat, being in a place that Arts Council England (ACE) classes as having “low participation in the arts”, with areas surrounding the gallery among the most deprived in the UK, and with little passing footfall to draw on.

It took great vision for Wakefield Council to decide in 2003 to create such an ambitious art gallery, designed by the now internationally acclaimed David Chipperfield Architects, with the specific desire to raise aspirations and wellbeing in the area. It takes great imagination, tenacity and commitment for the council to remain our major investor, alongside ACE, in the face of severe local budgetary cuts, and as many councils slash their investment in culture with little real understanding of what will be lost for generations to come. Regular dialogue between the Hepworth and the council enables us to respond to its priorities and demonstrate growing return on investment.

When museums and galleries are funded adequately, they have a transformative effect on the quality of people’s lives, education and health. Over the past four years, we have run weekly drop-in sessions for the significant number of local young people classed as not in education, employment or training. Here, they can try different art forms in a safe and inspiring environment, learn new skills directly from artists, meet other people contending with similar issues and visit inspiring places they would otherwise never experience. Our strategic aim is to develop the employability and life skills of these challenged young people in order for them to live happier and more fulfilled lives.

In 2016-17, all of the participants found that the sessions helped them successfully control  situations outside of their comfort zone, increased their problem-solving capacity and, through having the opportunity to share ideas and express opinions, felt that their voices were genuinely being heard. All this gave them new-found confidence.

It has been rewarding to see the success of the progression routes we have created: one young person became a volunteer at the Hepworth, and then secured paid roles at our gallery and Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Many of the participants are now in college, taking courses as varied as horticulture, games design and social care. This is just one of several programmes we run in response to the direct needs of our local community.

The Hepworth Wakefield is vital to developing the local, national and international image of our district. Our work attracts significant numbers of visitors to Wakefield, who spend money on trains, taxis, hotel rooms, and in restaurants and shops, actively contributing to our local economy.

We often hear first-time visitors express surprise at the quality of our exhibitions, more akin to what they would expect to see in London. But why shouldn’t Yorkshire or any other region of the UK be able to deliver the highest-quality experience? It is directly related to the funding we are able to secure.

Art galleries and museums are not merely “nice to have”, or in any way elitist. They are highly socially engaged. They are as essential as schools and healthcare providers, and can be as impactful, particularly when embedded in imaginative partnerships. The creative industries are one of our true international success stories, and the work we do in public museums is central to producing the world-class art, architecture, fashion and design for which we are renowned.

There’s a lot to learn from Wakefield’s success.

Simon Wallis is the director of the Hepworth Wakefield. He will be taking part in a Directors in Conversation session at next month’s Museums Association Conference & Exhibition, 16-18 November, Manchester, alongside National Trust director general Helen Ghosh, York Museums Trust chief executive Reyahn King, and Morag Macpherson, the head of cultural services at Renfrewshire Leisure.