A few weeks before Leeds art gallery reopened I met curator Sarah Brown – official title Principal Keeper – and she showed me around what was, at that point, still essentially a building site.
The gallery was in the final stages of completing essential repairs to the original roof and other parts of the Victorian building, work which had been carried out over a period of 18 months since in January last year. As we walked around in our hard hats and hi-vis vests, Brown explained her vision for the gallery and her enthusiasm for, and commitment to, the project was palpable. She took me through the downstairs galleries talking through the restoration, and revealing the thoughtful attention to detail that has gone into the sympathetic updating of the 130-year-old Grade II listed building. The benefits of 21st century state-of-the-art lighting and environmental controls are clear, but equally important to Brown and her team was their wish to be respectful to the building’s past and its architectural heritage.
“What we have really tried to do is to strip everything back to the original integrity of the building and simplify the decoration,” she told me. As we made our way upstairs we passed German abstract artist Gothar Lotz putting the finishing touches to his vibrant mural Xanadu, a new Art Happens commission partly financed by crowdfunding, which now adorns the walls of the staircase. It is on this upper level that a real gem has been rediscovered – the original Central Court with its beautiful glass ceiling, which had been blocked off for over half a century and is now a beautiful new gallery spece. Fast forward a month or so to the reopening this month and I joined several hundreds of others in the gallery’s Tiled Hall cafe for a glass of celebratory prosecco before taking a look around. It’s been a busy year and a half behind the closed doors of the gallery, but all the hard work has paid off – in spades. It really looks magnificent both in terms of the renovation and the artworks on display. “One of the things I really wanted to do was to show more of the collection we have here,” Brown had told me earlier. “I want to freshen things up and show works from the collection that people haven’t necessarily seen before. It is about highlighting and celebrating the collection in its entirety.”
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Arnold and Marjorie Ziff gallery, where Brown and her team have refreshed the display, hanging different works from the gallery’s extensive collection. They include glorious large-scale paintings such as Frank Holl’s A Village Funeral and Francis S Walker’s The Convent Garden. The other major display downstairs is the extensive Artist Rooms exhibition of the work of the influential German artist Joseph Beuys. Significant works – such as one of the last sculptures made by Beuys Scala Napoletana – feature across three rooms, alongside works on paper and vitrines containing objects related to his performance art. Moving to the upper level, at the top of the staircase is a whole wall of portraits, very closely hung, which looks wonderful. The Central Court is a truly beautiful, light-filled, elegant space. The feeling is one of expanse in all directions, allowing the work within it to breathe. One of those on display here is a major new acquisition by renowned artist Alison Wilding. Arena (2000) was recently gifted from the Contemporary Art Society – a large-scale sculpture in polycarbonate and cast rubber, it is a perfect centrepiece. There is a room that features a whole wealth of work by Jacob Kramer – the gallery has an extensive collection of his work – and other works on display in the gallery that have not seen for a generation include watercolours by John Sell Cotman, Jacob Epstein’s sculpture Maternity (1910-11) and works on paper by celebrated Mexican artist Diego Rivera.
“The thing we are really most excited about is the audience,” Brown told me back at the end of August. “It all only really matters when people come in. And when they do I hope that they will notice the difference but also to some extent that they won’t because in a way that’s how it should be.”
And that is exactly what has been achieved. The gallery feels different, refreshed and vibrant, yet still reassuringly familiar. Perfect. Get there as soon as you can.