The New Art Gallery Walsall, a landmark millennium project that opened in the Black Country town in 2000, is threatened with closure due to planned spending cuts by the local council.
The gallery, which as well as its programme of contemporary art exhibitions also houses a collection of more than 300 Jacob Epstein sculptures (the Garman Ryan Collection), donated by Epstein’s widow in 1972, was conceived as part of an attempt to regenerate the once thriving town on the outskirts of Birmingham.
Designed by Nottingham Contemporary and Tate Britain architects Caruso St John – whose Newport Street Gallery recently won the Stirling Prize for architecture – the gallery is situated on the edge of a former industrial wharf area to the east of the town centre.
Walsall Council has said it now has to consider closing the venue as part of a package of £85million of cuts. Labour leader Sean Coughlan has described public services as “at the point of breaking right across Walsall”, declaring that “no service is safe”. The cuts are to be made over the next four years, with £31million to be shaved off the next financial year.
The council blames the move on central government cuts to its budget, which it says has been reduced by £118million since 2010 despite increased demands on children’s services and social care.
Speaking on Radio 4’s Front Row, the artist Bob and Roberta Smith – who was in residence at the gallery for two years from 2009-11 – described the impact of its closure as “horrendous… if that gallery closes, all those millennial project galleries are up for grabs by councillors who just think that local collections are treasure houses waiting to be sold at Sotheby’s and Christie’s.”
He continued: “It would be a complete and utter disaster for the arts in Britain. It would be the end of the idea that working people should enjoy and participate in the arts in this country.”
Smith described the building as “like going into the Royal Festival Hall. It is such a beautiful building. And of course it’s a building for the people of Walsall.”
A final decision on whether the gallery will close is yet to be made.
A statement from Arts Council England given to Front Row said that they would be finding out more about the situation next week and expressed confidence in Walsall Council understanding the value of their “joint investment” in arts and culture. It stressed, however, that a planned increase of funding by four percent of national portfolio organisations outside London can’t be used to replace funding lost from local authorities.
Mentioning the planned closure of Inverleith House gallery in Edinburgh, Smith added: “This is the next wave of cuts to the arts and it’s really happening right now. The political will and love isn’t there: it isn’t there for the arts in schools, it isn’t there for the art history A-level, there’s been a 20 percent decline in kids doing the art GCSE… And we need to say, if you demolish the arts in this country you make Britain a really poorer place.”
1. The New Art Gallery Walsall. Photo: Tom Truefitt, photography
2. Eva Rothschild, ‘Alternative to Power’ window box, The New Art Gallery Walsall, 24 September 2016 – 15 January 2017. Photo: Robert Glowacki
3. Eva Rothschild, ‘Alternative to Power’, (installation shot), The New Art Gallery Walsall, 24 September 2016 – 15 January 2017. Photo: Robert Glowacki