Yorkshire: The Centre of the Art Universe for One Night

An Opening on the World 1

What a dilemma. What a challenge. The @HepworthGallery opening and the @WoolgatherArt Prize awards happening simultaneously, so relatively near in national geographic terms, yet so far apart in terms of cultural identity and ethos. Standing proud and unmissable on the Wakefield waterfront, the Hepworth Gallery is the latest and newest and biggest manifestation of the traditional art establishment. Nestling between Pret and Tesco in Leeds city centre these past few weeks, casual passers-by stumble upon the ideologically optimistic egalitarian and democratic breath of fresh air in the art world that is the Woolgather.

I had to see both. Since 21st century technology did not allow for my first choice of teleporting StarTrek-style, I decided if I arrived promptly at 6 pm in Wakefield, I would have enough time to run around and nose at the building and artwork through the elbows of the great and good clutching champagne flutes, and still be able to dash back up the M1 in time for the Woolgather announcements. And so that’s what I did.

It is true to say that even from the perspective of my whistle-stop tour, the Hepworth Opening had all the trappings of a Very Big Event. That very Yorkshire tradition, a Bavarian oompah band, was braving the grey damp elements to greet arrivals descending the footbridge, and trays of drink and canapés circulated with abandon. There were also huge numbers of serious dark suits, and an intriguingly large presence of ecclesiastical collars. Even arriving at 6.07 pm as I did, I still managed to find a real entrance foyer crush. They must have been queuing up to get in before the doors opened.

I would have been perfectly content to pass the evening people-watching. I was also more than a bit interested to see the art; the opening exhibition Hot Touch presents new works by Eva Rothschild. Her sculptures are made from a range of hand-made and industrial materials, and are an interesting contemporary cultural take through modernist forms.  But I will have to go back to have a proper look, because on this first visit, all I could really take in was the building itself. It really is a wonderful space, and hard to believe in this day and age that it came into being at all: purpose-built white cubes almost seem a relic of the past. An indulgence. And yet, there is something undeniably very special about purist spaces of this sort.

The gallery walls are occasionally interrupted by glassed openings onto the outside world. I could call them windows, but I liked the way they connected the gallery with the outside. I liked the way the views of Wakefield drew visitors over as much as the exhibited art. No gallery today can allow itself to be disconnected from what goes on Out There.

And so the mad dash back up the motorway to the real-life art world of the here and now in Leeds to hear the outside world’s view on contemporary art. For the crowning glory of the Woolgather is to have allowed the public the determinative vote on the winner. As the curators explained in an interview with Eleanor Snare for The Culture Vulture, it shows respect for the popular vote; and that I think is something all too rare in the establishment of the art world.

And the worthy winner was… Jo Marsh, with just-as-worthy runners up Alex Sickling and Liz West! It was, it seems, all a close-run thing with the public liking pretty much everything, and in many cases taking the job of voting extremely seriously, spending a fair bit of time in the gallery viewing and deciding. Which is wonderful; and the Leeds art world is all the richer for the magnificent efforts of curators Annie Nelson, Chris Woodward and John Slemensek.

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