I’m looking at a piece of contemporary sculpture. It’s the only piece in the room. It’s in the middle of a Victorian art gallery building, in the middle of a cultural complex, in the middle of the grand civic centre of Leeds.
Arena by Alison Wilding is a swirling mass of perspex, layer upon layer of material drawing us into its core. It feels almost as if the middle of this sculpture is new centre of gravity of the city – the centre of the centre.
Leeds Art Gallery’s principle keeper, Sarah Brown, told me about her rationale for displaying this sculpture at the centre of the newly refurbished galleries.
“Alison Wilding is incredibly important in the recent history of British sculpture. I went to her studio and saw this sculpture. And having seen this space I thought it would be absolutely perfect. I knew that this would work. It’s called Arena and in the Victorian era this was a central court, the arena if you like, where people promenaded and looked at each other.”
“The decision here to include this seating is a nod to the history of the building,” says Brown. “This is a place where we invite you to dwell, to spend time, to sit.”
If the principal keeper told me the sculpture had been commissioned for the room it now sits in, I would have believed her. She’s completely right that it’s a perfect match (it was, in fact, commissioned for the foyer of a London law firm but had to be removed when it became apparent that the architect hadn’t completed the building as originally planned and it not longer fit).
The space it sits in was ‘discovered’ during the recent 18-month refurbishment project. While fixing the leaking Victorian building, staff noticed that they had inadvertently unveiled the original barrelled glass roof that been hidden behind a false ceiling.
“When the cladding came down and I saw it, I said ‘we can’t cover this up – we have to show this’,” says Brown.
Doing this has created a dramatic space that’s lit from above, perfect for displaying sculpture. The revealing of this central court makes complete sense of the building.
This isn’t a standard, white-walled display area like you’d find in any art gallery. It’s an intriguing and inviting space, modern, clean and fresh, but also Victorian in aspects, with rivets, glass and huge swathes of bent metal. It’s a fitting tribute to the industrial philanthropists who had a vision of a civic arts institution, right at centre of the city.
“One of our aims was that by refurbishing this space we didn’t lose its core character. The thing about these old civic buildings is they really work for showing contemporary art. The historic and the contemporary can sit alongside each other quite happily. We don’t need a white box with a concrete floor.”
This Victorian charm, now gleaning with its fresh coat of brilliant white paint, is the perfect space for the curved plastic lines of Wilding’s sculpture.
When Leeds Art Gallery opened to the public in 1888 it was a brand new building, showing new art to the public. This Friday, when the gallery reopens following a £4.5 million refurbishment for essential repairs, it will once again be the centre of attention in the city, displaying its varied historic collection, but also the very best of contemporary art and sculpture.
Main image: Leeds Art Gallery exterior, image courtesy Leeds Museums and Galleries
Reopening programme highlights will include the ARTIST ROOMS Joseph Beuys exhibition. There will also be new exhibition spaces, which will feature a selection of artwork looking back over 130 years.