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‘Another manifestation of the barbarism that has overwhelmed this country’

27 October 2016

The New Art Gallery at Walsall is by far the best, and most sensible, architectural project to emerge from the Millennium celebrations. It had a serious purpose – unlike, say, the gimmicky National Centre for Popular Music at Sheffield, which closed after little more than a year – and was serious architecture, a careful composition of solid masonry and ingenious spaces, rather than a giant conservatory or anything as naive as the preposterous ‘The Public’ at nearby West Bromwich, that giant shipping container on stilts, which (at £72 million of public money) cost over three times as much and was soon redundant. Won in competition, the New Art Gallery was the building that made the reputation of Caruso St John, architects, who went on to design, among much else, art galleries in Nottingham and, most recently, Vauxhall.

The New Art Gallery does much for Walsall, a town like so many others in the Black Country ravaged by neglect, poverty, and bad redevelopments. It is a landmark, a tall bold tower standing on the edge of the town and dominating a revived industrial area around a canal basin. The severe, cubic exterior, clad in terracotta, is relieved by a variety of windows reflecting the complex interior spatial arrangements: form follows function, but the building is also romantic and powerful. It has a proper, welcoming entrance – a rare boon these days. Inside the surfaces are of fine smooth concrete, civilised by excellent and sensible timber panelling and joinery. The surfaces are austere but comfortable, as are the staircases by which the visitor ascends through interconnecting gallery spaces of different shapes. To explore the building is an adventure. This is very good architecture, timeless in its basics.

The New Art Gallery Walsall, designed by Caruso St John.

The New Art Gallery Walsall, designed by Caruso St John. © Stereographics

I first saw the building when new, and was deeply impressed: modern architecture need not be pretentious, hostile, and minimal. It is a building with texture, weight, and mass. I last visited in July when I found, to my dismay, that the cafe in the large space at the top (with witty light fittings) was now another gallery. Otherwise the building was continuing to do its important job: displaying the unexpected and intriguing Garman Ryan Collection of 20th-century art gifted to Walsall in 1973 by the widow of the sculptor Jacob Epstein. The news that Walsall Council is not only proposing to close almost all of its public libraries (15 out of 16), but also to cut the funding of the Art Gallery to an extent that threatens its future is utterly dismaying – yet another manifestation of the barbarism that has overwhelmed this country thanks to doctrinaire Free Market parsimony and now Brexit. Not just the people of Walsall but all of us deserve better, for the New Art Gallery is a building and an institution of national significance.

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2 comments

  1. Walsall’s New Art Gallery is only one among many regional museums and galleries threatened by closure. Five Lancashire museums closed their doors to the public at the beginning of this month, while Kirklees Council has voted to close two of its museums. Several museums in the West Midlands have already closed, and there are plans to close others. Elsewhere, local authorities are setting zero budgets for their museums, or setting wildly unrealistic commercial targets for their museums. The number of museums at risk of closing is now so great that the Museums Association felt it necessary to set up a working group to provide guidance on museum closure.
    The problems facing the museum sector go far deeper than this, however. Research shows that public sector spending cuts have affected local authority museums more than other types of cultural organisation. Many museums now have ‘orphaned collections’, for which no-one within the museum has specialist curatorial knowledge. As curatorial posts disappear the impact can be significant. Material may in effect ‘disappear’ from the public view, and no longer be used in exhibitions and displays.
    It is fair to say that regional museums face an existential crisis. There is no coherent national strategy for museums. While the government trumpets its commitment to free admission for museums its policies ensure that local museums are at the sharp end of local government spending cuts. It is time for the DCMS to stop pretending that museum closures are simply ‘a local government issue’ and come up with a strategy that addresses the huge disparity between the National Museums and the rest of the sector. It is inequitable that, while Tate Modern has a £260 million extension, many local museums are reducing opening hours, laying off staff, introducing admission charges or facing closure for want of tens of thousands. If the government does not act, the trickle of closures will rapidly become a flood.

  2. George Makin Dec 1 2016 at 4:42 pm

    Your comments imply that walsall council is one of the barbarians of the free market but blaming local councils for the consquences of govt cuts is like blaming the victims of the plague for the disease. Walsall has to choose between a range of cuts to varying services. It doesn’t want to do this but at its most basic it’s a choice between high profile services or backroom, life saving, functions such as child protection or support for the disabled. As a resident ococ Walsall I want the art gallery to remain but I pity the people who have to make those decisions at a local level.

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