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INSPIRATIONAL ART

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A new art gallery would seem to be the last thing a run down industrial town such as Walsall needs but it has prove...
A new art gallery would seem to be the last thing a run down industrial town such as Walsall needs but it has proved to be the starting point for much-needed regeneration.

If you were thinking of building a spanking new, world-class art gallery what possible locations would come to mind? London's Docklands? Manchester's rejuvenated canal side? Possibly Liverpool's trendy docks? Forget those, a£21m, ultra-modern art gallery has recently opened - in Walsall town centre.

Walsall conjures up images of a grey, declining West-Midlands manufacturing town and council statistics do little to counteract these preconceptions. The town is described as 'a depressed area', with 'a population in decline'.

So why choose Walsall as a focus for tourists and art lovers - an area where the number of gallery visitors is likely to be among the lowest in the country? Can one building reverse the town's image?

These factors are precisely why Walsall was identified as the location for a new gallery - one that has ambitious aims, not only to provide a world-class art space but, perhaps even more importantly, to kick-start the regeneration of the until-now dying town centre.

'Yes, the new gallery is about art, but it's all about urban regeneration and inward investment. The gallery is part of a larger picture of the overall redevelopment of Walsall into a town everyone can admire and be proud of,' says Rebecca McLaughlin, the marketing officer for the gallery.

The physical structure of the New Art Gallery Walsall, as it is known, has begun the aesthetic rejuvenation of the town. The building's modern design provides an attractive and interesting new focal point for Walsall.

Construction has rejuvenated a forgotten, disused area in the heart of the town centre, alongside the redundant canal. The area was an eye-sore and its donation by the council has paved the way for a wide-ranging programme of urban regeneration.

The canal has been rebranded as a leisure area, with the creation of a new street, Canal Street, and pedestrianised zones. There are plans to extend redevelopment further into surrounding disused and underused areas.

According to Ms McLaughlin, its town centre location is also engaging people, many of whom would never normally consider going to an art gallery.

'It's fulfilling social purposes, making art and the gallery part of everyday life. Shoppers can come in from Woolies next door and look at a Picasso and have a coffee in a pleasant environment. Lots of people, from teenagers to retired people, are doing this.'

Ms McLaughlin and Martin Parnham, the town centre manager, believe Walsall's town centre businesses are already benefiting from the knock-on effect of the gallery.

'Only one month after the opening, larger shops have reported increased takings, and Mr Parnham plans to open most of the shops on Sundays,' says Ms McLaughlin. They believe further inward investment and increased employment will be generated.

A conference suite within the gallery aims to encourage businesses, which might have previously looked to Birmingham as a meeting site rather than Walsall.

The benefits of urban regeneration are evident in Walsall, but does the average resident really care whether it has taken an art gallery or a multiplex cinema to rejuvenate their town centre, and more importantly, which would they rather visit?

In the first month of The New Art Gallery's opening more than 50,000 visitors were registered - almost double the annual number of visitors to the existing Walsall Museum and Art Gallery.

The Labour-dominated council commissioned the new gallery and donated the land for it, valued at£500,000. Unusually, local people and non-specialists were involved in the decision-making process.

There was large-scale consultation with Walsall residents, who raised little objection to plans. Local councillors and non-specialists collaborated in deciding the winning design for the gallery, which attracted more than 150 entrants.

The Arts Lottery Fund was confident the gallery should be of local, regional and national relevance and donated one of the largest grants outside London, some£15.75m, to the project.

Ms McLaughlin believes that for the gallery to be successful both locals and tourists have to visit. 'In contrast with the original museum and art gallery, we have a complete cross-section of society, young and old, as well as many people from ethnic minorities, visiting.'

'We also want to involve the whole of the West Midlands, not just Walsall, in putting us on the cultural map and we are happy that many people from other towns, especially Birmingham, are coming.'

A significant number of visitors from cities such as London and Manchester are helping generate extra income, with some choosing to stay locally, and even foreign tourists are discovering the gallery's attractions.

The national and international visitors are attracted by an enviable permanent collection of European art. The local Garman Ryan Collection contains more than 350 works from artists such as Rembrandt, Monet, Matisse, Picasso and Van Gogh, and can now be housed in its entirety at the gallery.

The temporary exhibition 'BLUE: borrowed and new' exhibits works by Picasso, Warhol and Jarman, among others. You may wonder, however, how working-class Walsall residents are attracted to their new gallery and can feel part of it. Both the council and the gallery's brainchild and director, Peter Jenkinson, are convinced free entry is central to encouraging non-traditional gallery visitors to attend.

But they also believe that further effort is needed to draw in those who feel excluded by art, or who feel it is not relevant to them.

Ms McLaughlin and Mr Jenkinson believe the rooftop restaurant and ground-floor cafe attract those initially more interested in somewhere nice to sit and eat or drink than in art. But it is these people who end up wandering around and becoming engaged in the exhibitions.

Arising from public consultation before the gallery's construction was a need to attract people to art at a young age. The gallery's designers realised children would have to become directly involved with art to feel it is relevant and of value to them. 'We want children to be seen and heard,' Ms McLaughlin says.

The Discovery Gallery is not tucked away like children's facilities in other art galleries but is the first space seen when entering and is visible from outside.

The New Art Gallery Walsall demonstrates how a community's image and cultural awareness can be raised, and much-needed urban regeneration kick-started, just by building something many people would have considered unimportant in an industrial town, far off the tourist map.

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