The Tradition of the New

Walsall's 'New' Art Gallery opened 20 years ago, and is still one of the best in Britain. As one of the few enduring successes of New Labour's lavish arts programme, we ask: what went right?

The New Art Gallery in Walsall opened its doors twenty years ago. In that time, it’s avoided the fate of so many arts and culture projects implemented under New Labour to achieve both local esteem and art world credibility; it has secured work by major artists like Lee Bul for its anniversary exhibition, which opened in February this year. The turn of the millennium was marked by a proliferation of public spaces devoted to art, culture, and entertainment. On the face of it, this was a noble effort to reinvigorate British society, and Culture Minister Chris Smith was responsible for implementing a litany of projects aimed at a more progressive cultural climate. This was the era of the Millennium Commission, funded by National Lottery money and responsible among other things for the creation of the Millennium Dome and the Eden Project. It was also the era of the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead and the National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield, projects that were less conspicuously futuristic, but nevertheless tallied with the government’s emphasis on education.

But like most of New Labour’s social reforms, at its heart was the necessity of bringing a return to capital — either directly by revenue, or indirectly through a civilising mechanism that would lead to the boosting of ‘cultural capital’ among local residents. Between 1997 and 2001, the government would invest over £1 billion in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in the hope of seeing such returns. Culture had become big business, and  cash was lavished on some dubious projects (the ‘Pop Centre’ in Sheffield closed after barely a couple of years). The New Gallery’s director Stephen Snoddy attributes the success of the New Art Gallery to its rare clarity of purpose, as home to the Garman Ryan Collection, gifted to the people of Walsall by Kathleen Garman in 1973.

‘This gave the gallery a founding premise.’ Snoddy explains. ‘The reason, I believe that so many projects of the time failed, was because they either tried to be something they weren’t, or they were too ambitious and lost sight of why they were created.’ From this solid foundation, the New Art Gallery was able to expand its programming to include a broad range of modernist and international approaches, with important exhibitions focusing on immigration and the South Asian diaspora. Its design too, gave it a stronger footing than most of its contemporaries; its building’s designers Caruso St John created a space that delivered equal parts function, theatricality and grace. Twenty years later, it still stands proud among the low-rises surrounding it.

It’s difficult to resist comparisons with The Public, a former digital art space less than ten miles away in West Bromwich, which opened its doors in 2009 and was dubbed an adult ‘Fun Palace’. Four years and £31 million of Arts Council funding later, it was forced to close its doors. Like many projects of the period, hazy parameters, and misdirected ambition had led to a confusing and untenable mix of public engagement and private retail.

The New Art Gallery hasn’t completely escaped the same fate, however. In 2007, a branch of the coffee shop franchise Costa, replaced an exhibition shop and café on the ground floor. The challenge of protecting the gallery’s clarity of vision has become ever more difficult in the austere climate created post-2010. Roughly speaking, the gallery is funded 50% through the Arts Council, 40% through the local authority, and 10% through various fund-raising initiatives. Admission has always been free. But government cuts have led to a £250,000 loss in funding over the past decade and marketing and outreach efforts have been stripped back to almost nothing.

‘When I arrived here in 2005’ says Snoddy, ‘the initial success of the gallery had waned. That was natural, because it opened to huge fanfare before leveling out. When I got my feet under the table, audience figures went up. But since 2010 we’ve had cuts every year. We’ve been working within a particularly difficult financial situation that’s becoming increasingly untenable.’ He describes the gallery’s audience as comprising a high proportion of local residents, as well as tourists passing through; a mix of local and national footfall that is rare in the West Midlands, where the mainstay of its cultural institutions seem stubbornly committed to fake Victoriana instead of the modernist approaches more closely aligned to the area’s industrial heritage.

This also contributes to the gallery’s integrity. The remains of the late 90s and early 2000s, in terms of its gallery spaces, cultural centres, and theatres, resemble relics of a naïve optimism, exuberant in their neo-modern fittings, but empty of any greater purpose beyond driving revenue. The more modest ambitions of the New Art Gallery have always been the basis of its quiet credibility and enduring appeal.