I visited the New Art Gallery in Walsall recently and was disturbed to hear that its continued existence is threatened. It wasn’t the fact of the art works having to be rehoused, an expensive and insurance-demanding exercise, since the Garman Ryan collection is housed in several small rooms on the ground floor and could be found a site elsewhere, but the vast empty walls and spaces the gallery contains and the sheer expense of maintaining such large heated spaces. What will happen to them?
The building won awards for the architects Caruso St John and cost 21 million to build. Much of this was public funding. It opened in Jan 2000, so it was very much a Millennium project. Sixteen years later it seems set to close, or change from a gallery into – what?
When I visited there were thirty staff employed, they told me, which outnumbered the visitors by three to one. We visited midweek, during a school holiday, and all the people there seemed to be in the coffee shop. In the atrium, a vast, unused space, I had a feeling the place was already closing down. The architects made a feature of the lofty proportions of their design but I saw only a huge waste of space.
The exhibits occupy only a tiny amount of the wall and exhibition space. Cosy it’s not, but I didn’t expect that. I did expect to be able to find my way round the galleries, and was irritated to find that the stair bypasses the second-floor gallery (or was it the first floor?)
Either way, I found it confusing and impersonal, under used and having little to say to the local population. I’m told that students do use it, and so they should, for the Garman-Ryan collection alone, which has some very fine Epsteins as well as Sally Ryan’s beautiful bronzes and artifacts from all over the world. It also contains work by Freud, Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, Modigliani, Turner, and Degas among others.
But it needs more. The atrium is underused, I’d say, and maybe health and safety would object to items suspended from the ceiling, but surely a mobile or two or a neon installation might make the place seem less dead. Minimalism has had its day, I’d say. Let’s bring a bit of life back to Art – maybe even humour, texture, content – and see what happens. I saw nothing there that would make me want to come back for a second look, beyond the central collection.
I hope this white elephant can be saved from the knacker’s yard, but I fear the worst.