There's been a splurge of regional civic art galleries in recent years - MIMA in Middlesbrough, the Nottingham Contemporary, the Turner Contemporary in Margate, to name but three. All were planned and budgeted before the recession, arriving fortuitously in time to raise the hopes of their local communities. Now there's one more, possibly the last of the bunch, which opened less than a fortnight ago to critical acclaim. Welcome to The Hepworth Wakefield, in Wakefield. Londoners may need to click here to remind themselves where Wakefield is. Please feel a frisson of parochial shame as you do so.
The Hepworth is dedicated to the memory of sculptor BarbaraHepworth who grew up and studied locally. She's famous for her abstract sculptures, many of which might be described as curved geometric lumps with holes in, although that's to undersell their excellence. Two of her most well-known works are Single Form, which stands outside the UN Building in New York, and Winged Figure, which adorns the outer wall of John Lewis in Oxford Street. The Hepworth has neither of the originals, obviously, but it does have a number of smaller pieces and associated works. Not everything in the new gallery is Barbara's - there's a mix of contemporary sculpture and art throughout. But as a showcase of her work in the town where she was born, The Hepworth's concept and execution are excellent.
As you'd expect, the building's striking. It rises from the waters of the River Calder as a collection of slant-roofed grey boxes, with only a handful of irregular windows to break the featureless exterior [photo]. A little more conformity and you might think "trading estate warehouse", but instead there's a definite hint of artistic content. Pedestrian access is via a long thin footbridge across the river [photo], which places the new building in its former quayside context. Visitors walk first past a famous outdoor Hepworth sculpture [photo], then past the café (as a big hint that they might like to go inside and spend some money later). And then inside through the entrance where, oh yes, admission is free. Recession or no recession, Britain's still damned good at offering cultural excellence to all.
All the galleries are upstairs on the first floor. Not surprisingly, gallery number 1 is devoted to getting us acquainted with Ms Hepworth's work. A handful of works, no more than five, are spaced out on plinths for due inspection - enough to get the general idea. One pair looks like two owls with their eyes in the wrong place, another like a giant egg-shaped string instrument... or maybe that's just me. It's fascinating to discover, further round, how Barbara's creations were constructed. She was evidently an expert in so many fields - construction, metalwork, chemistry, as well as pure art. The Hepworth has been gifted a number of her plasters (from which casts were taken), displayed in a gallery dominated by a floor-to-ceiling prototype of that John Lewis angel. It's a shame there aren't more large-scale sculptures on show, to be honest, but I guess they're much better suited to outside display elsewhere.
It's not all Hepworths, The Hepworth. Henry Moore was a local, so he gets a look in too. There's a room full of Hepworths In Context, which allows the curators to show related works from the same era. They've not forgotten that Wakefield's long had a renowned civic art collection, so a sprinkling from that is on proud display. And there'll always be a temporary exhibition, the first of which showcases Irish sculptor Eva Rothschild. I quite liked her hand-crafted structures, coated mostly in organic black, although the collection felt a bit too Saatchi-Gallery to completely satisfy me.
This week, being new, The Hepworth was mostly full of locals taking a first look around. Retired couples, young couples, dear old ladies, men with beards - all seemed delighted and engrossed to have this new opening in their community. This week, being half term, The Hepworth was also full of children being taken round by their parents. They too were absorbed, even those whose parents looked like they might never have been round another art gallery in their lives. I too was impressed - an hour well spent, and that's without indulging in the café afterwards. Given a choice between here and the Turner Contemporary, sorry Margate, I'd come here. Whether it's worth a lengthy trek from London, that's another matter, but oh you lucky folk who live up North, Wakefield's opened a treat.
Also to enjoy in Wakefield Wakefield Cathedral: Ancient it is. Tallest church in the whole of Yorkshire. Recently won a £1½m lottery grant for restoration and redevelopment. [photo] Chantry Bridge: Old bridge with quaint medieval chapel halfway across. Still opens for communion once a month. Turner came and painted it. Visible out the window from the Hepworth. Trinity Walk: New shopping mall, just opened, aimed at more aspirational shoppers than the rest of Wakefield town centre. Clothes, food and more clothes. Yorkshire Sculpture Park: To make a day of it, and if you have transport, head a few miles out of Wakefield to this outdoor jewel.