Graves Art Gallery in Sheffield has been closed since last summer, so it was a pleasure to be invited to an opening view in the first week of September.
First, a pleasure that it was open. And second, that there were delights in the exhibitions.
Well-chosen exhibits from the permanent collection
Graves is known for showing parts of its own collection – the permanent exhibitions. Plenty of that this time! What is on show are lots of familiar works as well as some not so well known. And yes, the very large Grayson Perry Tapestry is there, and a lovely, lively John Hoyland. But there’s also an interesting mix of curations, with a variety of themes: how people have been portrayed through history; effects of war on landscape; everyday life in 19/20C; and more. Something for everyone to enjoy.
Interesting also to see Damian Hirst’s piece Beautiful Morana Dysgeusia: Painting for Jarvis, loaned by Jarvis Cocker. Ah, the sharing in Sheffield!
But in addition, the one-off exhibitions are often a source of interest, curiosity and challenge. Certainly Outside Narration compiled by Keith Piper and including his own Seven Rages of Man, explores different ways of looking at and explaining recent history, not always comfortably. Some of his work exhibited was acquired (as with that of other artists from the Blk Art Group) in the 1980s and is dramatic and powerful.
But it has its own limitations. I met him on the opening night, and asked him why it was all focused on male images. “It was the 80s”, he replied, suggesting that feminism had yet to play its part in insisting on broader perspectives. It was good to hear an artist acknowledge the limitations of their own work in reflecting the main themes of that era. Which of course chimed with the purpose of his exhibition.
Many of us have seen some of the street art of Phlegm, but did we know that Sheffield Museums has acquired a series of his sketches: Pandemic Diary 2020? Almost 70 of them. And here they are, all on show. Interesting and illuminating.
But for me, Precision as a State of Mind, the exhibition of Mark Firth’s metal sculptures (aluminium and steel), is the most beautiful of the displays on show: attractive, elegant, accessible. You don’t have to think too much to understand it; it is easily appreciated and enjoyed. And yet this is the first major exhibition he has had. Of course, we need artwork that challenges us and that we have to grapple with as to its meaning. But sometimes just being able to enjoy the beauty of the work makes it a real joy. And well worth another visit.
The Graves Art Gallery building: welcome improvements but problems remain
There have been significant changes in the Gallery since 2020, with a generous charity donation enabling large-scale maintenance work and refurbishment of the physical structure: they have managed, as the gallery’s website says, to “renovate, redecorate and redisplay works”. And how very noticeable and welcome these improvements to gallery spaces are compared to the rest of the building. In particular, I noticed the poor state of the wall by the side of the stairs next to the Graves entrance.
But no amount of refurbishment can counter the present lack of easy access to a gallery on the third floor. It makes it hard to attract the visitor numbers it deserves and so there is not much ‘drop in’ traffic. I would love to see the gallery at ground floor level in that building, with access from Tudor Square. And level access too, so that disabled visitors wouldn’t have to go round the back to the goods entrance.
The building as a whole and its future is still undecided. For years, it has been on the agenda of the city council to seriously address the overall condition of the building. But lack of available funding (it needs a lot, a huge lot, of money), and other more immediate priorities within the city, have sidelined any progress.
Sheffield, like other local authorities, has been hamstrung with huge budget cuts and requirements to adhere to central government restrictions on what they can and cannot do. Also, being forced to include the private sector has created uncertainties about who is responsible for what. Grenfell shows how disastrous that can be.
So life has been very difficult for local authorities. And as a gallery that shares a building with a local authority service, Graves has been – and inevitably and frustratingly will be – impacted.
The other big change has been the coming together from April 2021 of Museums Sheffield and Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust. Now called ‘Sheffield Museums’, the merger is described as “a new unified museums service for the city and its people”. The expectation is that this will create new opportunities for sharing and exhibitions, and economies of scale. But no doubt there will be much work to be done to enable this.
Where next for Graves and Sheffield Museums?
Obviously, this is tied in with the future of the building and hence with Sheffield City Council’s plans not just for the building but for the role of what we might call the ‘culture corridor’ in the city centre.
This encompasses a huge sweep of cultural provision: from Sheffield Archives, Persistence Works, Site Gallery and the Showroom, up Howard Street to the Millennium Gallery, Central Library and Graves, then across Tudor Square to the theatres, on to the Winter Garden and across Pinstone Street to the City Hall. And there is another large building, owned by the City Council, currently empty and looking for a purpose: the John Lewis Building.
Now what would fit there? A refurbishment that built in decent digital access and with plenty of space for shelves? Maybe it could accommodate the central library? And the Graves building to become an arts centre: the gallery at the ground level; meeting rooms and studio spaces; commercial art galleries and shops to help provide some income as well as different functions. The imagination starts to run riot!
But maybe, maybe, worth a punt?