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'It has become a landmark and a meeting place': Walsall's New Art Gallery gears up for 20th anniversary

By Heather Large | Walsall | Attractions | Published:

It was hailed as one of the most exciting new galleries to be built in Britain for decades and has continued to receive national and international acclaim since it opened 20 years ago.

Stephen Snoddy, director at the New Art Gallery

Walsall's prestigious New Art Gallery has garnered a reputation for its top-class exhibitions, prized collections and commitment to nurturing the region's art talent.

It is also credited with paving the way for many other new regional galleries, including the Hepworth Wakefield, the Turner Contemporary in Margate and the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art.

"To build something like this in a small Black Country town like Walsall must have seemed inconceivable," says director Stephen Snoddy.

After traveling around most of the world Michael Palin take a rest under the calf by Kenny Hunter at Walsall's new art gallery

"Other towns thought if Walsall can do, we can do it too. They all followed Walsall's example," he adds.

Construction of the landmark attracted attention due to the building's stunning architectural design which aimed to create a warm and inviting space.

Architects Peter St John and Adam Caruso were selected following an open international competition and went on to be nominated for the RIBA Stirling Prize.

"It was their first project and now Caruso St John work globally," says Mr Snoddy, who began working at the gallery in 2005.

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"It was built to a high quality. I've seen a lot of buildings that are 20 years old and they don't look this good," he adds.

Garman Ryan collection

The gallery welcomed its first visitors in February 20, 2000 before being officially opened by Her Majesty The Queen on May 5, 2000.

When it first opened its doors it featured a roof garden and restaurant, four large temporary exhibition spaces and a ground-breaking children's interactive discovery gallery.

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There was also a 'house-within-a-house' 13-room home for the priceless Garman Ryan Collection which was gifted to the people of Walsall by Lady Kathleen Garman, widow of sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein, and her friend, Sally Ryan.

It includes 365 important works by celebrated artists including Van Gogh, Monet, Constable, Turner, Picasso, Degas, Matisse, Lucian Freud and Epstein.

Today the gallery, which is mostly funded by grants from Arts Council England and Walsall Council and stands in the heart of the town centre, attracts in the region of 150,000 visitors every year.

Queen Elizabeth II meets well wishers after opening The New Art Gallery Walsall, Walsall

It has a changing exhibition programme, focusing on the very best in international contemporary art, an artist studio and artist development programmes support artists from across the region.

There have been some changes to the building over the years including transforming the former fourth floor restaurant into a gallery space in 2006 that has since hosted dozens of temporary exhibitions.

"There will be lots of people that won't realise it was a restaurant. It wasn't a gallery but we turned into a gallery. That gives me massive satisfaction," says Mr Snoddy, who trained at Belfast College of Art.

He believes one of the gallery's biggest success stories is its commitment to acquiring contemporary art which has included purchasing work by artists based in the region.

"When I came here in 2005 one of the things I wanted to do was to have an acquisition budget. We've collected in the region of 2,000 artworks and in the region of 200 artworks are from artists working in the West Midlands region.

Stephen Snoddy with 'Away from the flock' by Damien Hirst

"That's very strong support for the local economy and helps artists stay in the region," explains Mr Snoddy.

One of the artists the gallery has developed links with is Walsall-based portrait painter Andrew Tift and staff have acquired a handful of his pieces over the years.

Mr Snoddy says the team will continue to work with him in the future so that the collection will eventually "reflect the full output of his career".

The gallery has also been keen to support up and coming artists through its studio programme inviting them to do a residency at the Gallery.

Recently this has included Birmingham-based Sarah Taylor Silverwood who has created a body of drawings, on display until June, based on text and images abstracted from photographs, letters, and documents relating to the two creators Kathleen Garman and Sally Ryan of the Garman Ryan Collection.

Michael Palin tries out the benches outside the New Walsall Art Gallery with Peter Jenkinson .

Another of the gallery's achievements was being shortlisted in 2013 to host the Turner Prize. Although it narrowly missed out to The Tramway in Glasgow, Mr Snoddy says it shows how highly-regarded the gallery is within the art sector.

"Only four galleries were shortlisted from 30 applicants so it was very good for us in terms of our profile," he adds.

Since the gallery has opened it has been committed to hosting a wide variety of solo and group exhibitions including work by the likes of Damien Hirst, Elizabeth Magill and Conrad Shawcross.

The year-long Hirst exhibition which was part of ARTIST ROOMS On Tour and included the famous 1994 work Away from the Flock – a sheep suspended in formaldehyde -, attracted more than 213,000 visitors.

But one of Mr Snoddy's personal highlights was a solo exhibition was by Mat Collishaw which included photography, film, sculpture and installation and was the artist’s first show in a UK public venue for 10 years.

All Things Fall by Mat Collishaw at The New Walsall Art Gallery

"That was the best solo exhibition we've had in my time. Mat Collishaw should have been shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2015. It was stunning," he explains.

Another show that sticks in his memory was a curated exhibition ‘The Life of the Mind’ by Bob and Roberta Smith, the name acclaimed artist Patrick Brill goes by, in which he used his research into the Epstein Family Archive to develop the themes of the exhibition – love, sorrow and obsession.

Mr Snoddy said it was about providing visitors with variety in terms of the range of media while also reflecting the diversity of the local community.

"My vision when designing our programme is that I always think about our audience and have a balanced programme of solo shows, group exhibitions, themed exhibitions

It hasn't always been easy for the gallery with success coming despite shrinking budgets and limited staff resources.

Garman Ryan collection

But Mr Snoddy remains positive of its continued success and is focussing on securing the gallery's next Arts Council grant which will provide funding for four years.

He says visitors are always astonished by the quality of what's on display and the team works hard to encourage more people to see what it has to offer for themselves.

"We're always trying to get those people who haven't visited to come to the New Art Gallery. We know our repeat visitor numbers are very high. We know it's very, very highly-regarded by the local community and we are delighted by securing sponsorship from HomeServe for the Community Gallery on the ground floor.” adds Mr Snoddy.

To mark the 20th anniversary the gallery is hosting an exhibition 20:20 Twenty Years of Collecting Contemporary Art which will run from February 21 to June 14.

It will bring together works of contemporary art collected over the last 20 years, many from artists who have featured in its exhibitions programme.

Stephen Snoddy

Walsall Council leader Mike Bird, who helped to secure funding for the construction of the gallery, says it has become an important landmark in the town.

"It has stood the test of time. The building is a bit like Marmite, some people hate it and some love it. While the art isn't to my taste, it is very popular, both nationally and internationally.

"It attracts people to Walsall and has become a landmark and a meeting place. I hope it goes from strength to strength," he adds.

Heather Large

By Heather Large
Special projects reporter - @HeatherL_star

Senior reporter and part of the Express & Star special projects team specialising in education and human interest features.

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