While plans for the future of Huddersfield Art Gallery are still in the melting pot, over in Wakefield a development is moving ahead at speed, as DAVID HAMMOND reports

A MAJOR new £26m art gallery will be a landmark in a ‘renaissance’ in Wakefield, once the ‘capital’ of the old West Riding.

The city is seeing a new market hall being built and a £25m expansion plan for the Ridings shopping centre, which will give it 100 top name stores.

A big retail development will take place in the Westgate area, where there will be a new station.

But it’s down by the riverside, on a site almost opposite the famous Chantry Chapel on the Calder, that the new gallery – to be known as The Hepworth – is being built.

It is part of a big renewal in that area, which will also see the conversion of historic mills, including the 1790 stone Navigation Warehouse, which will open this year as offices and a restaurant.

Flats and cafes will also feature in the waterside development, some in old mills, others newly built.

“Along with the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, the National Coal Mining Museum and Nostell Priory the gallery will be another big visitor attraction for the area” says the gallery project’s director, Gordon Watson.

“We expect people to be attracted from near and far. We estimate we will have 150,000 visitors a year, with more than that in the first year.”

Wakefield Council, investing £9m, is the main contributor to the funding of the new building.

But grants have also come from the Arts Council, the Heritage Lottery, Yorkshire Forward development agency, the European Union Development Fund and English Partnerships.

The gallery – which will have something of a sculptural feel, with various roofs at different angles – has been designed by top architect and Stirling Prize winner David Chipperfield, who won the design competition for the building in 2003.

It is being built in grey-coloured compacted concrete which has a smooth finish. The basement floor has been installed and basement walls are now going up.

The two-storey building, which will rise 30 metres from the bottom of the basement, will form part of the city’s flood defences.

There will be 10 gallery rooms on the first floor, one housing the Hepworth “plasters”.

These are 30 works by Wakefield-born sculptor Barbara Hepworth and given to the Wakefield Gallery in the 1990s and one of the principal reasons for building the new gallery.

They have never been shown together before.

Works by Castleford-born sculptor Henry Moore, including his Reclining Figure in elmwood, will also be on show.

The permanent collection will be well represented in chronological order from the 16th and 17th centuries through to modern works such as Tissot’s On The Thames, one of the collection’s many gems.

Major touring exhibitions should also be possible. The gallery will get Arts Council cash for its exhibition programme and Wakefield Council is increasing its annual contribution by £600,000 to make sure the shows live up to the aspirations of the new building.

On the ground floor there will be a learning suite for work with schools and community activities, a cafe and shop, a multi-purpose room, storage and offices.

The gallery, which is 600 metres from Wakefield Cathedral, is on several bus routes (including the free city bus service) and will have a car park.

It’s a short walk from Kirkgate railway station, which is to be improved and expanded. Patrons will be encouraged to use a pedestrian route from the city centre and a four-metres wide pedestrian bridge which will cross the river.

The new gallery, which, with the cafe will create 36 jobs, will replace the present Wakefield Art Gallery in Wentworth Terrace.

This is a converted house which was opened in 1934 (as a temporary measure!) and has never really had the space a city art gallery should have.

“We expect the new gallery to have attractive exhibitions,” Mr Watson said. “There will be natural light for the galleries and the cafe will open out to a garden area.”

The council had been the main enabler and supported of the project. There is still another £4m or £5m to raise, but officials are confident this will be found. Building should finish next year and after fitting out the gallery should open at the beginning of 2010.

“The gallery has a prominent site and will be a great resource for local people and visitors,” Mr Watson said. “We know it will raise the profile of Wakefield”.