Up until just over a week ago I had never in 7 years of living in Leeds found a good reason to visit Wakefield. Being told on moving up here not to bother because it was “full of fat lasses eating chips” and having a Kafkaesque afternoon trying to pick my father up from Kirkgate station haven’t helped. But, with the opening of the Hepworth Gallery and the enticements of a playground and creative activities for our 4 year old there, we visited at the weekend.
First impressions were not great – a steely Yorkshire afternoon and a confusing jaunt round Wakefield’s one way system taking in a dreary sprawl of DIY warehouses and car dealerships to find that the Hepworth’s car park was inexplicably closed. The squat monolith of the building surrounded by scruffy industrial units and a low sky, plus the trepidation of going to see an art form that I don’t particularly understand.
However, all this was dispelled after a few minutes in the playground which apart from cheering up Oli also brought blue skies and sunshine and the chance to see the first of the art.
After this we felt more able to go and try to tackle the gallery itself. The place was buzzing and friendly. The room for the creative activities had large windows looking out at the entrance so we were led straight in by Oli, enticed by the colourful card, crayons, string and canes being deployed by several children to make intriguing models. The enthusiastic and helpful volunteer assistants gently suggested to Oli that he really needed to go round the gallery first to get some inspiration before starting on his craft work. Surprisingly, they didn’t need to do much persuading and we got to go round the gallery, following the children’s discovery trail guide. That guide is probably the best of its sort that I have ever seen. It was written in language that Oli could read and understand and soon he was leading us across the first gallery to Barbara Hepworth’s Spring and discussing with us whether it was more like an egg or a pebble (he dismissed the option of it being a head).
Looking round a bit further we got to see the visiting Eva Rothschild exhibition. Oli was fascinated by her Sunrise which appears to float in mid-gallery. Perhaps a bit too fascinated as he wanted to crawl underneath and to touch the streamers hanging off its lower part. Oh no, nightmare, time for a curator to shout at him and the hordes of art lovers to tut disapprovingly at the bad parents with an unruly ruffian child. Or not. Instead, the curator in that room smiled and said that everyone wanted to touch the streamers and that he hadn’t done any harm. Result, one small boy who has had a nice time rather than being told off (we did of course say to him that he ought not to touch anything else and he was good to his word). He was also sufficiently inspired to go back to the creative area to make his own interpretation.
Not a bad effort thanks to the help of the volunteers who managed to get him to describe the favourite thing he had seen in the gallery and to work with him to make his own version.
I won’t say too much more about the art itself as you need to visit it yourself and others have put it more eloquently (eg http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2011/may/29/hepworth-wakefield-eva-rothschild-jaume-plensa ). Suffice to say, there’s a lot to see, it is all surprisingly accessible and enjoyable even if you have no particular expertise in sculpture.
A final mention should go to the café. It looked to be full to bursting with a long queue stretching out of the door. Yet, somehow, service was quick and friendly and there were enough tables to prevent the need for hovering over someone who looks like they might be finishing soon. The food itself was simple but of a high quality and filling – a small range of fresh sandwiches (cheese and spring onion, ham, tuna, sausage, bacon) and a single hot dish. All together, the Hepworth is a great gallery and has enough appeal to make a trip to Wakefield something to look forward to.
As I’d debated the regeneration value of £35m of modern architecture and sculpture with a friend from Wakefield recently (he thought it a waste of money that would be better spent on services local people would actually want) I think the fact that in a single attraction the city has made something which will attract people who would otherwise never have considered the city to be worth visiting unless they liked “fat lasses eating chips” shows how it will help regeneration. As the Observer article linked above says, combined with the nearby Yorkshire Sculpture Park (already a favourite of ours) and the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds there’s a critical mass of modern art now in the area.