GALLERIES Raising the roof

Leeds Art Gallery’s £4 million revamp has revealed a long lost roof, and the level of the city’s ambitions. Patrick Kelly reports

[Caption: Sarah Brown, principal curator, beneath th transforming rediscovered skylight]

Enter the first room of Leeds Art Gallery, opened again this month after an 18 month revamp, and you might feel you have been propelled back into the past, rather than invited to view the future. 

The walls are covered, top to toe, in paintings of burning shipwrecks, charging cavalrymen and classical myths. The floor is peppered with busts of long dead captains of industry sporting the long locks and sculpted beards beloved of the male bourgeoisie of the 19th century. It’s as if we had stepped back to 1888, the year the gallery first opened its doors.

And that’s the intention. The busts are of the gallery’s benefactors and the displays come from the early collection; the effect is a loving recreation of what Victorian Leeds would have expected of its  very own municipal art gallery, and while it’s easy to pick holes in the Victoriana, the message for today is very clear. Those Victorian bigwigs took a pride in their city and in its ability to build and furnish a gallery devoted to the best examples of the art and culture of the era – and the city still does so today.

Leeds City Council has spent £4 million on the restoration of the gallery, the vast majority of that sum coming from its own funds. Much of the cash has gone on behind-the-scenes repairs to the fabric of the 130-year-old building, unglamorous work like fixing the roof, removing dry rot and asbestos and replacing antiquated electrics.

“The council didn’t baulk at the cost” says  John Roles, head of museums and galleries. “It has always shown a commitment to culture and the fact that the leader of the council retains portfolio for culture is a demonstration of that commitment. We have even been allowed to replace curatorial posts, something which other councils have not done.” 

He added that the city’s museums and galleries have always been able to show that they bring in substantial external funding – Leeds has the third largest NPO grant in the sector in the country.

The council has invested in a number of refurbishments of the venerable institution on the Headrow many times, he added, “but this is first to look at whole building on a major scale. Its a massive undertaking to redo every room in the building”.

But pride of place must go to the restoration the central gallery core with its barrel-shaped glazed roof, an unexpected surprise revealed to workers removing a false ceiling which had  obscured the skylight of the original structure in a 1960s attempt to create a “white cube” effect. The discovery, while welcome, did mean another six months added on to the project.

It also means that they had a gallery which would do justice to Alison Wilding’s magnificent Arena, a gift from the artist to the gallery. The complete rehang also means that there is an opportunity to display sculptural works throughout the gallery, says curator Sarah Brown, and give due prominence to the city’s collection of 20th century modern sculpture which, taken with the Henry Moore Institute next door,  is recognised as the strongest collection of British sculpture in UK.

The reopened gallery also features a major exhibition of work by Joseph Beuys, an artist who“totally transformed the language of sculpture” and to devote space to John Sell Cotman’s exquisitely detailed sketches of Yorkshire life. Other highlights include an entire wall of top class portraits by various artists, and Tony Cragg’s vast Union flag and works by Frank Brangwyn, Diego Rivera and local artist Jacob Kramer.

Explaining the philosophy of the rehang, Brown added, “We are now much more comfortable with the idea of putting contemporary art next to Victorian ornamentation, and we think it’s right to respect the history of important civic buildings. It’s a question of what do we value in society?  Culture and art is such an important part of our development as a city. Even in Victorian times, the gallery’s founders were interested in buying art of their time, from Europe as well as Britain. That European angle is still important today”.

It’s also an important part of the city’s bid to bag the European Capital of Culture title for 2023. Leeds City Council leader  Judith Blake said of the art gallery: “It has one of the most significant collections of art in the country. To be able to show it in the refurbished art gallery is very special indeed. Now that we are moving full steam ahead with our 2023 European Capital of Culture bid, it is brilliant to see the return of Leeds Art Gallery which, internationally recognised and celebrated, will offer another timely reminder of why our bid is so varied and strong”.

A trawl through the local media reveals that Leeds residents are glad to have their gallery back and that it was much missed while it was closed, despite  a programme of loans to other institutions over the last 18 months. But Roles is wary of sticking to a target for visitors to the revamped gallery. “I think we will be pleased just to maintain numbers that we have seen over the last few years, which varied between between 440-520,000” he says.

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