The Hepworth Wakefield was named the 2017 UK Museum of the Year, winning last night (5 July) the Art Fund's prestigious, £100,000 first prize. The David Chipperfield-designed gallery in the Yorkshire town where the sculptor Barbara Hepworth grew up was competing in a strong field, which included London's recently expanded Tate Modern.
Speaking at the award ceremony held in the Great Court of the British Museum, the chair of the Hepworth Wakefield, David Liddiment, attributed its success to the fact that over the past six years since it opened the gallery has stayed true to "The Plan". The television executive said it has avoided being parochial while being proud of Wakefield and Yorkshire's artistic heritage. "We have a world-class building and bring world-class artists to Wakefield," he said, adding that it had "reclaimed" Barbara Hepworth from St Ives in Cornwall where she lived and worked as well as London.
The leading sculptor Richard Deacon, who was one of the judges of this year's award, took a longer view of the gallery's achievement. Deacon praised the visionary curator of Leeds' Henry Moore Institute, the late Robert Hopper. "He had a very grand vision for Leeds, Barnsley, Halifax and Wakefield as a sculptural centre, that was not solely tied to the local heroes, Hepworth and Moore," Deacon told The Art Newspaper.
In the 1990s Hopper began to bring artists including James Turrell, Christian Boltanski and Michaelangelo Pistoletto among others to Dean Clough, former carpet mills in nearby Halifax. Hopper, who died aged 53 in 2000, also worked closely with Peter Murray, the founding director of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which is near Wakefield and won the Museum of the Year award in 2014, to make the region a centre for international art.
The Hepworth gallery's recent achievements have included the launch of the Hepworth Sculpture Prize and exhibition. The inaugural prize was won in 2016 by Helen Marten, with David Medalla, Phyllida Barlow and Steven Claydon the runners up. Meanwhile, Magnum photographer Martin Parr celebrated the "rhubarb triangle" around Wakefield, documenting its growers for the gallery.
The win was especially satisfying for Simon Wallis, the director of the gallery, his team and Sophie Bowness, the art historian and artist's granddaughter, because the Hepworth gallery has been shortlisted twice before, in 2012 and 2015.
"It has been wonderful to see Simon Wallis and his team really bring the building into the community against all of the odds," David Chipperfield told us, recalling that the £35m project was initially turned down by the National Lottery for funding. The architect revealed that he "continually resisted" the idea that the museum was primarily about regenerating Wakefield, the traditional selling point to local politicians and other funders. "Don't aim for regeneration, if you build the best possible museum you can, and you put the right people in place, regeneration will come," he said.
This year the shortlisted museums besides Tate Modern were the Lapworth, a small university geology museum in Birmingham, Sir John Soane's Museum in London and Newmarket's national museum of horseracing and sporting art. Each receives a £10,000 consolation prize.