The Hepworth Wakefield has been named Art Fund Museum of the Year 2017, after the West Yorkshire gallery saw off strong competition from rival contenders including Tate Modern and Sir John Soane’s Museum in London.
Opened in 2011, the gallery on the banks of the River Calder has rapidly established a strong reputation as a centre for contemporary art. Judges for the Art Fund prize — Britain’s biggest arts award — pointed to the gallery’s ambitious launch of its own new prize last year, the £30,000 Hepworth Prize for Sculpture. The inaugural Hepworth Prize winner, Helen Marten, went on to clinch the Turner Prize.
Stephen Deuchar, chair of the judges and director of the Art Fund, said the Hepworth prize had already become “nationally important” in its first year.
“To carry that off with all the confidence of a museum as large as the Tate running the Turner Prize was to be in the top league from scratch,” he said. “It’s an incredibly difficult thing to pull off.”
Judges also commended two exhibitions curated by the Hepworth: “Of Angels and Dirt”, a retrospective of the work of artist Stanley Spencer, and works by photographer Martin Parr, including a series of photographs on the Rhubarb Triangle, an area between Wakefield, Rothwell and Morley known for its early-forced rhubarb.
“These were two of the exhibitions of the year,” Mr Deuchar said.
Housed in a purpose-built brutalist structure designed by architect Sir David Chipperfield, the £35m gallery has 1,600 sq m of display space at its disposal. It will now be able to bolster its income with the £100,000 Art Fund prize.
For the first time, each of the four runners-up for the prize will also receive £10,000. They are the Lapworth Museum of Geology in Birmingham; the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art in Newmarket; Sir John Soane’s Museum and Tate Modern, both in London.
Tate Modern, the behemoth of UK contemporary art, lost out on the award despite launching a £266m extension at its Bankside site and welcoming 6m visitors since its opening in June 2016.
The Hepworth Wakefield saw a 21 per cent boost in its visitor numbers in 2016, to 210,275.
Mr Deuchar said the gallery had succeeded in winning regional support and funding, even as local authority budgets had tightened.
“For a town that faces the challenges it does to stick with its arts programme, to believe that the power of creativity really does lead to urban regeneration, is a pretty brave thing to do,” he said. “The Hepworth has been successful in keeping the faith with the local authority.”
Aside from Mr Deuchar, the judges were Richard Deacon, an artist and Royal Academician; Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum; Munira Mirza, an adviser on arts and philanthropy; and Jo Whiley, a radio and television presenter.
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