We were headed somewhere else on Saturday as we passed the Hepworth Gallery. As it was somewhere that we had thought to visit for a while, we decided to drop in 'just for an hour'. Please understand that we approached this visit as a family group rather than as a group of high-brow art enthusiasts.
The car park is a Pay and Display that takes coins or cards. It had a single price of £4.50 for the full day. You walk out of the car park, cross the road and over the footbridge that crosses the waterway. As you start to approach the gallery, at first glance it looks like a concrete monstrosity. From the outside, this is most certainly the case but, as we were to find out later, looks can be deceiving. The art works start even before you get into the gallery with a homunculus made from recycled rubbish hanging from a waterside crane and further, more traditional, sculptures in the grounds. Our girls spent a few minutes trying to identify the recycled items that had been used. To the back of the gallery is a children's play area with zip slide, climbing frames, swings, roundabouts, etc.
On entering the gallery, we were greeted by a very friendly member of staff who gave us a 'What's On' guide and pointed out the various facilities. Everything, as you would expect from such a modern building, is very clean, sharp and well presented.
There are guided tours and audio description headphones available but we declined both of these as we did not intend to stay for long. As we started our 'quick' tour of the gallery we found several art 'pods' set up around the gallery. These were staffed by volunteer artists and had a range of activities available for the children to get involved in. The first that we encountered was in an exhibition looking at electric light and sound in artwork. They had laid out a few 'snap together' circuit boards together with some simple designs that enabled the children to build their own circuits that acted in different ways and gave them different sound, light and motion responses. We spent a few minutes putting them together to see what they would do.
From there, we moved into another gallery with another art pod. This time, the children were given clipboards with paper and pencil and we were given an activity sheet. We were directed into another gallery where the children were shown two artworks and we could ask them several questions about them. This didn't particularly grab their attention but then they were invited to sit and sketch a couple of the sculptures.
And this is where the gallery suddenly took on a whole new dimension.
Suddenly, we weren't just on a prescribed tour of a stuffy, old building looking at a collection of artworks from a diverse range of artists. Now we were watching as our children sat cross-legged on the floor, sketch pads on their knees, and were drawn into the artworks themselves by being actively encouraged to create their own art. This is hardly something that I would expect to see at the Modern Tate, for example! They sat and sketched for a while then moved on to another sculpture and sketched some more. At one point, one of them went to a window, sat facing outwards and started sketching again.
As I went to watch, the design of the building suddenly grabbed me.
From the outside, the building is ugly. Angular, grey concrete boxes. From the inside, the massive windows throw natural light into all of the galleries and allow visitors to have an unimpeded view of the surrounding environment and external art works. My daughter had seen a stone sculpture in the gardens and was sat inside the window recess quietly sketching it.
We took our sketches back to the lady at the art pod and found that she had set up some model building activities with straws, pipe cleaners, tape, etc. As our children built their free-form models, she directed us to a nearby light and asked them to hold their models under it and look at the shadows that they cast. The girls were entranced and wanted to stay for longer to do more.
Our 'quick' visit had taken four hours and we hadn't seen half of what was on display.
The curators of the Hepworth Gallery have produced an attraction that really does try to include a full range of visitors and they have done so with sparkling success. Without a doubt we shall be returning to the site to see - and do - so much more.
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