A welcome trend in our cities and towns over recent years has been the greater attention given to retaining character and developing identity. This may be a reaction to the tendency for local identity to have been submerged by the scale and uniformity of development over the past 40 years, resulting in one town becoming very much like another. Establishing identity and a higher profile is also seen as an effective means of attracting inward investment and, through this, achieving regeneration and rebuilding civic pride and confidence.
This approach has been one of the cornerstones of Walsall’s physical regeneration over the past ten years. The New Art Gallery is the most potent symbol of this.
Walsall has an attractive and busy town centre, which missed the worst excesses of the 60s and 70s comprehensive redevelopment. Its focus is a spine running from the parish church of St Matthew on its historic hill site, through the market area in High Street/Digbeth to the main shopping street, Park Street. The centre, retaining significant townscape character in parts, is a current focus of a series of Heritage Economic Regeneration and Townscape Heritage Initiative schemes.
The main regeneration challenge has been to capitalise on the potential to extend the spine of the centre, based on a long-neglected canal arm, which lies within 100 metres of Park Street. In 1991 the council commissioned a feasibility study and master plan for a comprehensive approach to the development of the Town Wharf area. This established the basis for a phased mixed-use development focused on the canal arm and, critically, highlighted the site at the head of the canal arm as the location for a new gallery.
Like many other towns, Walsall has had a long art gallery tradition, dating back to the 19th century. Walsall’s gallery benefited hugely in 1973 from the gift of a collection built up by Kathleen Garman (Lady Epstein, the widow of Sir Jacob Epstein) and her friend, the American sculptor, Sally Ryan. The Garman-Ryan Collection comprises 365 works, 43 of which are by Epstein, by 153 artists. The collection, which has been described as an A-Z of European art, includes works by such artists as Monet, Picasso and Van Gogh.
The old gallery had the space to display only part of the collection at any one time and it was an ambition of the council to provide a new gallery. One scheme to do this in the 1980s failed to secure funding. This led to a more ambitious concept, not only to provide a better home for the town’s art collections, but to become the focus for a major regeneration project.