Est. 1960


Barbara Hepworth created art of international standing.

As a woman (and a Yorkshirewoman at that) she might have struggled to gain recognition. Thankfully that was not the case and now has a gallery worthy of her work in her home town. Editor, Kevin Drayton put a few questions to Nicola Freeman, Director of Engagement and Learning at the gallery to find out more.

Nicola Freeman



Photo courtesy of © Iwan Baan

Photo courtesy of © Hufton Crow

How does the management feel about the location (both Wakefield as a city and placement in a former industrial area within that city)?

The cultural offer in Wakefield is pretty extraordinary – in addition to The Hepworth Wakefield, 15 minutes down the road there is The Yorkshire Sculpture Park, we have a beautiful National Trust property in Nostell, the National Coal Mining Museum, a fully occupied complex of art studios at The Art House, and a Victorian theatre in Theatre Royal Wakefield. It feels like a pretty vibrant and burgeoning scene to be part of.

We’re very proud to be part of the regeneration of Wakefield Waterfront and to now be witnessing its further development. The council recently granted planning permission for the renovation of Rutland Mills, the 19th-century former textile mill opposite the museum, and The Hepworth Wakefield is creating a stunning new garden by international designer Tom Stuart-Smith between these two historic buildings. This will allow us to show sculptures in a natural landscape, where visitors can move around them and see them in changing light – just as Hepworth believed sculpture should be seen – and extend our learning and public programmes outside. It’s a really exciting moment, seeing the potential of this site take shape.

We hope in a year or so from now, beyond the 250,000 visitors the gallery already attracts every year, the wider waterfront will be transformed into a place for even more people to enjoy – with cafés, studio spaces and artist-led activity in the mills that builds on The Hepworth Wakefield’s programme and supports and retains talent in the region.

What I enjoy most about our location is being able to tell the story of Barbara Hepworth in the city where she was born and grew up. Hepworth moved to London in her early twenties and later settled in St Ives for the rest of her life, yet her childhood experiences in Wakefield and the surrounding countryside remained a powerful influence throughout. Towards the end of her life she wrote, ‘Perhaps what one wants to say is formed in childhood and the rest of one’s life is spent trying to say it. I know that all I felt during the early years of my life in Yorkshire is dynamic and constant in my life today.’ And through our collections, we are able to demonstrate this sustained deep connection with the city and the landscapes of Yorkshire. She always claimed that ‘I, the sculptor, am the landscape’, an idea that formed as a young girl on car trips through the West Riding countryside with her father, a county surveyor: ‘All my early memories are of forms and shapes and textures… the hills were sculptures; the roads defined the forms’.

Wakefield, as with many cities, has changed dramatically since Hepworth’s lifetime and we’re opening an exhibition of British photography this summer, Modern Nature, that will examine the way that, with deindustrialisation and the increased management of the countryside, urban and rural landscapes have merged – and how this has changed our relationships with nature, as individuals and communities. Ahead of the opening of our new garden, the exhibition will be the inspiration for a major new project with local young people, encouraging them to turn their eyes to their own surroundings and to explore ways to introduce nature into the city.


How do you feel about the building?

The building is one of many reasons I was drawn to this job. In 20 years working in museums and galleries, I’ve not experienced such beautiful spaces for presenting and exploring art, and I love the way the building responds to both Hepworth’s work and to its waterfront site. The architect David Chipperfield was inspired in his design by the clarity and power of form of Hepworth’s sculptures, and he built the museum in situ in cast concrete, so that it rises dramatically out of the River Calder, which of course in Hepworth’s lifetime was still an important route for industry. This relationship with the river mirrors other industrial buildings on the site, such as Rutland Mills, that come straight out of the water ‘like Venetian palazzos’, in Chipperfield’s words. There’s another connection here with Hepworth, who in visiting Venice was very struck with the way that the architecture affected the mood of people: ‘They walked differently, discovering their innate dignity’, she observed. The smooth concrete exterior of The Hepworth Wakefield is pigmented to give it a faint purplish-grey hue, which reflects the changing light. In Venice, Hepworth also noted that ‘the animation of light and shadow over the earth colours of the buildings and their superb proportions were so vital that every human action against this setting seemed to be vested with a new importance’.

Chipperfield regards The Hepworth Wakefield as his masterpiece building – and it features on the front cover of the monograph of his work. Chipperfield thought carefully about what makes a museum for the 21st century – how the building needed to reflect the vital social role museums now play in communities. No longer

Photo courtesy of © Marc Atkins

What I find so effective in this respect is the way that on your approach to The Hepworth Wakefield, artworks and people are framed in the large windows on all sides, while from the inside these have been carefully designed to direct our gaze to key landmarks.

Photo courtesy of © Marc Atkins

 ‘columned temples of culture’, instead they must ‘create a refuge’. What I find so effective in this respect is the way that on your approach to The Hepworth Wakefield, artworks and people are framed in the large windows on all sides, while from the inside these have been carefully designed to direct our gaze to key landmarks: the 14th-century Chantry Chapel close to the gallery, Wakefield Cathedral in the city centre and Emley Moor transmitting tower in the distance. Chipperfield explained that ‘the window… is the device that allows us to understand where we are, that reminds us what the building protects us from… it gives a face to the building, allowing us to see in and to imagine its interior. The windows in The Hepworth Wakefield serve all these purposes… helping it to find its place and its relationship to its location'. He also recognised that ‘light is a material of a museum. Its manipulation is fundamental to the nature of a gallery’, and he created what he called a ‘Horizontal Gallery’ – a circular sequence of ten galleries on one level, which allows for » top-lit galleries. This creates a flowing, dynamic route around the collection displays and exhibitions, allowing connections to be made between works of art and encouraging people to linger, pause, retrace their steps. We provide free resources around the gallery to help visitors slow down and look more closely and use drawing to explore their responses.

A school group visits The Hepworth Family Gift, on display at The Hepworth Wakefield - Photo courtesy of © Nick Singleton

The story of this remarkable woman is at the heart of everything. We have so much to work with in terms of her inspiration from the local Yorkshire landscapes.

Photo courtesy of © Nick Singleton

Photo courtesy of © Hannah Webster

Art is about opening up new, sometimes difficult conversations, thinking more creatively and it’s about play and exploration.

Photo courtesy of © Nick Singleton

Do you compare yourselves with other galleries?

It’s less about comparing, more about exchange and collaboration. Museums and galleries succeed on the quality of their relationships with artists, with audiences – including those who do not currently engage in the arts – and with other galleries. No museum can operate in isolation. The Hepworth Wakefield works hard to maintain its national and international network and reputation, which is crucial in drawing visitors to Wakefield while ensuring that the world-class art we exhibit has relevance and inspires our local audiences.


Do you see the Hepworth as part of a wider landscape of galleries locally and nationally?

Absolutely. It is important to us that we continue to build our national and international networks and profile through delivering a world-class exhibitions programme, which this summer is a celebration of the innovation of two extraordinary female artists: Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain and Viviane Sassen: Hot Mirror. But our vision is always to bring the very best in international art to our local audiences – and we are continually building our relationships with artists and arts organisations in the region.

We are one of the key partners delivering a three-year ‘Cultural Destinations’ project for Wakefield, which is a consortium with funding from Arts Council to help raise the profile of the cultural offer in Wakefield and attract more visitors to our city. We are currently collaborating with The Art House in Wakefield to give young people we work with a potential progression route for their art practice, and we recently partnered with The Art House to co-commission a new work by Veronica Ryan, which has now entered our collection; also, with both The Art House and the Wakefield arts partnership WE ARE, we have offered a series of micro-commissions for emerging artists. Partnerships are so important in finding ways as a community to support artists at all stages of their career. This autumn we are staging the second Hepworth Prize for Sculpture, a biennial award of £30,000 presented to an artist of any age that the judges feel is making the most important contribution at this moment to sculptural practice.

Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle is a strong partnership we have developed with Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Leeds Art Gallery and the Henry Moore Institute, and in Summer 2019 we are collaborating on a major project – Yorkshire Sculpture International. This will feature work by international artists across the four venues, as well as major new public commissions in Leeds and Wakefield. Alongside this, we are running an extensive engagement programme with schools, universities and communities, as well as a talent development scheme for artists based in the region. Our ‘Year of Sculpture’ scheme launches in September, which will specifically address the decline in the study of arts subjects in schools. Everything will be free, encouraging new audiences to engage with sculpture.


What do you regard as your mission and how do the specifics of building, location etc affect the ability to deliver that mission?

What we want more than anything is to create unforgettable art experiences for our visitors that inspire and captivate. We also want people to take full advantage of us as a free resource, whether that is dropping in for a coffee or lunch; enjoying quiet time in the galleries, working together as a family to create something in our free drop-in workshops, exploring and drawing, or spending time with a favourite artwork during a break from work; visiting our changing exhibitions or attending one of our many art fairs; joining discussions, or even taking yoga classes. On whatever level, we are keen that we are a place for people to meet, relax and enjoy themselves, to start conversations and build long-lasting relationships. We also deliver a huge range of engagement projects with schools and out in our local communities (particularly in areas of the city where people currently do not visit). We have around 70 artworks from the collection on display in local museums and other sites across the district. This will include the loan of major sculptures to schools during Yorkshire Sculpture International next year.

Is the legacy (and name) of Barbara Hepworth pertinent to day-to-day decisions?

Her story is key; everything we do comes back to it. It is what makes this job most exciting for me – the story of this remarkable woman is at the heart of everything. We have so much to work with in terms of her inspiration from the local Yorkshire landscapes – both industrial and rural; her extraordinary talent and determination to succeed internationally; her innovative use of materials; and her wide range of influences across art forms and beyond – from natural history to mathematics and Zen Buddhism – as demonstrated by her personal library, a selection of which we currently have on display. She wrote in a letter to a friend, ‘It’s only through living and feeling, reading and feeling, carving and feeling that I believe and have faith’. It’s wonderful to have such a strong local context as well as working with the legacy of an artist known and respected internationally.


I believe educational outreach is important to The Hepworth Wakefield; what particular stance do you take on that work?

We want to encourage as many and as diverse audiences as possible to The Hepworth Wakefield. What makes museums and galleries such unique places is that everyone who works here does so because art has positively impacted their own lives in some way and they want others to share in this experience. Engaging with art, thinking around artist’s ideas and making work ourselves: these things transform every aspect of our lives – including how we creatively approach our work, whatever that may be. Artists question the status quo and they encourage us to think about things from a different perspective, and that is needed in all walks of life and across all industries. I believe that art and creativity should run through every subject we teach in schools: fundamentally it’s about shifting children’s minds so that they realise their potential as producers not simply consumers. I feel very lucky to be working in the arts, but I wish I had been given that message growing up. At my primary and secondary schools, art was a very separate subject and not regarded as important. Yet as an adult I’ve experienced how writing, drawing, music and any kind of making are vital ways of understanding the world and articulating our thoughts and feelings. Art is about opening up new, sometimes difficult conversations, thinking more creatively and it’s about play and exploration. We hope The Hepworth Wakefield provides a safe, welcoming space for all this - for everyone.

We also started a campaign earlier this year with School Prints, a major new initiative to raise awareness of the importance of a creative education. The project revives a simple but brilliant scheme from the 1940s in which leading contemporary artists were invited to make original lithographic prints for primary schools. We invited Martin Creed, Jeremy Deller, Anthea Hamilton, Helen Marten, Haroon Mirza and Rose Wylie to create new limited edition prints for The Hepworth Wakefield, the sales of which have funded a full engagement programme with seven local schools, reaching around 900 children directly, but far more through projects teachers set up themselves, inspired by the scheme. Each school has received a framed set of limited-edition prints and Antony Gormley donated a drawing to the Wakefield Permanent Art Collection on the understanding that it will always be on loan to a local school. We plan to continue the project each year so that eventually every child in Wakefield will grow up with the best of contemporary art on their school walls. Later this year we will be announcing another very exciting four-year project to place artists-in-residence in local secondary schools.

For many years, we have run a programme, funded by Paul Hamlyn Foundation, to help young people currently not in education, employment or training to develop new skills and find pathways back into work or formal education – the results have been incredibly rewarding. We also deliver an ‘Out and About’ project with local families, where we visit beautiful local sights, such as Brimham Rocks, and work together on creative projects here at the gallery and out in the landscape. We do all this because our founding purpose was to create positive change locally.