Ferens Art Gallery, Hull

This beautiful redisplay is pulling in the crowds during Hull’s year as the UK City of Culture
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Rebecca Atkinson
The announcement in 2013 that Hull had beaten its rivals to win its bid to host the City of Culture 2017 caught many people by surprise, especially the London-based media.

What did this “glum port town” – as Vice magazine dubbed it a year earlier – have to offer in the way of art and culture?  

Now partway through its year in the spotlight, the city has so far had the last laugh. Since the start of its year of celebrations, the city has enjoyed a higher national profile and a huge boost in visitors, many of whom take the time to visit the Ferens Art Gallery, which reopened in January following a £5.2m makeover.

Much of the refurbishment work focused on improving the gallery’s environmental conditions; there is a new glass lobby between the entrance and galleries, skylights that cut out ultraviolet light and control heat, and air conditioning and humidity controls.

This work has not only enabled Ferens to borrow works from the Arts Council Collection and elsewhere to complement its already impressive collection, but has also made it possible for the gallery to host the Turner Prize later this year.
The galleries have been redecorated and refitted. Once visitors have passed through the glass foyer, there is a central space currently displaying Alexander Duncan’s Cove – a huge pile of “rocks” that are in fact made from polymer fragments collected by the artist from coastlines over the past decade.
The rest of the galleries circle this space and have been hung in a traditional manner based on broad chronological categories or periods – 20th-century British art, Victorian and Edwardian, the Netherlands, for example. Upstairs, a balcony gallery has maritime artworks and an exhibition room telling the story of Thomas Robinson Ferens, who founded the gallery in 1927.
Visitors looking for a cutting-edge approach to display might be disappointed; there is nothing particularly surprising in terms of exhibition design. In one sense, it’s refreshing that the curators have resisted the urge to create overly clever groupings. But it does mean the galleries are a little (dare I say it) dull, which isn’t helped by uninspiring text panels.

Lacklustre presentation

I didn’t get any sense that the designers had thought about fresh approaches to interpretation or the visitor experience. Other than some listening seats featuring audio interviews with people from Hull in one gallery (which wasn’t working when I visited), there are no opportunities to engage with the collection other than passively passing from painting to painting.
The journey between galleries isn’t particularly enjoyable either due to push-through glass doors situated at every entrance. I know these have been put in for environmental reasons, but if they make life hard for able-bodied visitors with a buggy, like myself, then what about those in wheelchairs?
Talking of buggies, I loved the new play area off the new foyer, where children can touch sculptures, draw and explore other sensory materials. It’s nice to know that families are welcome at Ferens, although it’s a shame that the artworks on the walls here are positioned too high for little ones to see properly.

Perhaps these complaints are mine alone. Ferens welcomed more than 40,000 people in the first two weeks after reopening, and it was packed when I visited on a sunny Sunday morning in April. There were mainly adult visitors and those I spoke to seemed to be a healthy mixture of day-trippers from across Yorkshire and the north, overseas tourists and locals.

A temporary exhibition called Skin (until 13 August) was particularly popular. On display are a number of Lucian Freud’s nude paintings including Naked Girl with Egg (1980-81) and Large Interior, London W9 (1973), which explore the relationship between the artist and the model.

On loan from the Courtauld Gallery, London, is Edouard Manet’s study for his later painting Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, the controversial depiction of two men in modern dress seated with a naked woman in a park.

The impact of this painting, which scandalised 19th-century France, is lost here, partly because of the sheer amount of naked flesh on display elsewhere in the exhibition, but also because the text doesn’t quite capture the drama of its history.

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But these works aren’t the main draw of the show. Neither are Ron Mueck’s hyperrealist sculptures of the human form, including Wild Man and Spooning Couple, which are borrowed from the Artist Rooms scheme.
What people are coming to see is a display of Spencer Tunick’s photographs from the Ferens’s Sea of Hull 2016 commission, which have been revealed here for the first time. Officially the largest nude installation in the UK, more than 3,200 people stripped off and painted their skin with blue body paint to pose en masse at various locations that reflect Hull’s urban landscape and maritime history.

Some of the people visiting Ferens at the same time as me had taken part, or knew others who had (apparently it’s your feet that get the coldest). Others just wanted to see their home city on the walls of the art gallery.

Many had already been to the shop to buy limited-edition posters, notebooks and mugs featuring some of Tunick’s photographs. Upstairs in the history of the Ferens gallery, a video explaining how the installation was made was impossible to view due to the huge number of people gathered round it. The legacy of Hull’s year as City of Culture is not yet clear. The crowds that have been flocking there so far this year will no doubt die down, but hopefully many will have a reason to come back.
Ferens will need to create a strong and alluring programme of  temporary shows and events if it wants those crowds to continue popping through its doors. More so, it must make it clearer to visitors that the displays will change.

Some exhibitions, such as Offshore: Artists Explore the Sea (until 28 August), have a clear end date. But others, including Francis Bacon: Nervous System (now ended), which featured his Head VI (1949) series on loan from the Arts Council Collection, are incorporated into the permanent displays.
In 2011, an exhibition featuring David Hockney’s Bigger Trees Near Warter, painted just outside Hull, drew huge crowds to Ferens. Like Tunick’s photographs, the lesson is clear – people from all walks of life can and will engage with art, but especially when it reflects them, their lives and the places they live.

Project data

Cost £5.2m
Main funders Hull City Council; Arts Council England
Architect ESA
Contractor Geo Houlton
Lighting ERCO
Exhibition design Hull Culture and Leisure (HCAL); Ferens in-house
Interpretation HCAL; Ferens in-house
Graphic design Now Then Design; Process Black
Display cases ClickNetherfield
Installation HCAL
Exhibition ends SKIN: Freud, Mueck and Tunick – Ron Mueck in Partnership with Artist Rooms, until 13 August; Offshore: Artists Explore the Sea, until 28 August; Ferens: Hull’s Philanthropist, until 31 December
Admission Free

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