Changing the face of culture in Yorkshire

Peter Murray, Issue 117/12, p15, 01.12.2017

Patience and tenacity have been required to oversee organic growth

Reflecting on the growth of Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP), it is sometimes difficult to remember the early fights and frustrations trying to establish the sculpture park as an important museum.

I was leading a postgraduate course in art education and, along with my students, considering ways of making art more accessible. We looked at establishing a sculpture trail, providing an opportunity to experience the kinaesthetic aspects of three-dimensional work. From these experiments emerged plans for YSP, which opened on 24 September 1977.

Over the past 40 years, we’ve changed the cultural landscape; we’ve brought world-class artists to Yorkshire and won prestigious awards. Following the Hepworth’s recent win, Wakefield now boasts two Art Fund Museum of the Year awards (YSP won in 2014). We have grown an audience that genuinely loves YSP and our programme, which is underpinned by learning, and attracts national and international support.

While some projects have drawn large crowds – our 2007 Andy Goldsworthy exhibition and the Wave installation from the Tower of London Poppies in 2015 are examples – more targeted work has been undertaken with families and schools in socio-economically deprived areas of Yorkshire, including communities where many pupils speak English as a second language. Through long-term action research, we’ve offered a safe passage for new visitors who have traditionally faced barriers to get here. By offering them, in the first instance, fully supported visits to the park, we’ve helped build confidence, and now see these families visiting independently.

Another great achievement has been reuniting the Bretton Estate, which was divided and sold in 1949. We have brought the 18th-century estate back together and are responsible for 500 acres of historic landscape, providing access to the public.

Patience and tenacity have been required to oversee the organic growth of YSP, as we have gradually evolved into a major institution. Through an understanding of the quality and nature of the landscape, we have developed curatorial opportunities for the siting of sculpture, providing the confidence to embark on several site-specific projects, for example, with James Turrell and David Nash.

From the outset, the YSP concept was embraced by the artistic community, with strong support from Henry Moore, Anthony Caro and a younger generation of artists. One of our first moves was to establish a residency programme for emerging artists, which continues today.

Funding has been established, but is a constant difficulty, requiring innovation and strong business sense to seek alternative income streams. We have a talented team to cope with YSP’s unusual work pattern, which includes farming, forestry, open-air and enclosed galleries, and visitor facilities.

We continue to move forward – expanding, learning, attracting major artists, bringing in new audiences and developing the landscape.

Peter Murray is the founder and executive director of Yorkshire Sculpture Park 

Peter Murray founded YSP in 1977 while a lecturer at Bretton Hall College. Today, it spans 500 acres with five indoor galleries, and receives more than 500,000 visitors a year, providing jobs for 180 people and contributing more than £10m a year to the regional economy. In 2018, YSP will open a second visitor centre.