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.
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.