BRYAN PELL

A landmark in Walsall’s revival

Putting faith in the regenerative powers of a single building is risky, but Walsall’s new art gallery is exceeding expectations.

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.

The project was initially stimulated by City Challenge, but primarily capitalised on the establishment of the Arts Lottery Fund. In contrast to the approach six years earlier, and encouraged by government, arts agencies, and local partners, the innate aspirations, ambitions and confidence of the gallery project team flourished. A major international architectural competition was conceived.

The brief included the requirements (among many others) that the New Art Gallery should be a landmark building of outstanding quality and architectural distinction, setting new standard for Walsall and the wider region; should contribute positively to and influence the surrounding area; should have a strong visual presence from the retail area of Park Street, the canal corridor and the approach along Wolverhampton Street; should encourage civic pride and be a visitor attraction in its own right. Caruso St John’s bold and confident landmark concept, and their sensitive and varied approach to the exhibition spaces, excited the selection panel and was chosen unanimously.

The gallery was completed in late 1999 and opened to the public in February 2000. Its £21 million cost was met by £15.75 million Arts Lottery funding, £4.5 million from the European Regional Development Fund, and further funding from City Challenge and the council.

Even before it was opened the New Art Gallery created an impact.

The uncompromising bulk of the New Art Gallery

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The Gallery and its new neighbours

The canal arm has been optimistically rebadged as the Walsall Waterfront

Bryan Pell is general manager (property and development services) at Walsall Borough Council

This reflected several factors: the high-profile international design competition and the selection of a young, up-coming practice; the acclaimed reception of the design itself, which did not conform to traditional concepts of gallery buildings; the outward-looking, promotional consultative approach of the project team (the process is well described in a booklet available from the gallery – Building the Audience by Claire McDade).

In the first month of opening, the New Art Gallery received over 55,000 visitors, which was more than the total annual number for a normal year at the old art gallery. Over the first year there were almost 250,000 visitors, which exceeded the first year target by 80 per cent. These visitor numbers have been maintained, with 605,000 now recorded. The gallery has hosted over 300 conferences.

The New Art Gallery has received wide publicity, nationally and internationally, in all forms of media. This included the Channel 4 coverage of the Stirling Prize in 2000, in which the New Art Gallery came a close second to the Peckham Library. Numerous prestigious awards have been won. This positive publicity has provided beneficial spin-off in increased awareness and standing of the town.

Walsall’s success in regeneration over the past ten years, particularly but not only the New Art Gallery, has given government more confidence in the ability of the council and other local agencies to deliver regeneration projects, and to support this with increased funding.

The major challenge to Walsall is to follow up the success of the New Art Gallery. The gallery project has paved the way for the final and critical stage of

this major development project, along both sides of the canal arm. This has been re-badged as the Walsall Waterfront. The main objective is to procure a development which complements the design and attraction of the gallery.

In advance of the main scheme, a local Wolverhampton-based developer, City Village, is converting a three-storey Victorian factory building behind the gallery to create 36 apartments, featuring a new glazed projecting facade to the canal. A new-build second phase is projected to follow shortly. This would not have happened without the gallery.

The council and the regional development agency, Advantage West Midlands, advertised the waterfront development opportunity internationally in 2002, attracting 114 expressions of interest. The level of interest achieved was substantial, from a range of wellregarded and high-profile development companies. Urban Splash was selected as the development partner, from a shortlist of three, based especially on their reputation for promoting and achieving highquality architecture and design.

This success was repeated recently in the selection of the design team to lead the preparation of a strategic framework plan. Over 120 expressions of interest were received, including a number of high-profile practices. Even more than with developers, this level of interest can only have been a response to the profile achieved by the gallery. Alsop Architects has been selected from an exciting shortlist.

For Walsall now the challenge is for the town to sustain the momentum and capitalise fully on the opportunity the gallery has created.

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