So I visited the New Art Gallery in Walsall about 5 weeks before the time of writing and have only got the chance to to my write up. Although my recollections are a little hazy, I luckily know the gallery and its collections really well. Nothing has really changed since I used to visit regularly in my early twenties and the short review is; go and take a look, it’s really excellent.
Luckily I took lots of photos of the space and what we did, to jog my memory.
This visit was also made with Mylo, and so our time in the space was dictated a lot by what he wanted to look at and had the span of concentration for. What I was really so pleased to see, was that unlike Nottingham Contemporary, the staff and rooms were extremely child friendly. We spent about 30 minutes running around one of the galleries taking photos and were never asked to move or change what we were doing – Kids in Museums indeed.
Upon entering the first room is a huge double height space that encompasses the information desk and the shop off to one side. Off it is the Costa Coffee, the only change I would have preferred not to have taken place. The other side is the children’s gallery, a playroom dedicated to multi sensory explorations of art that ranged from dressing up clothes through to an huge xylophone. Many pieces of artwork were skillfully referenced and a few originals were on display. Thought provoking questions were asked alongside many chances to create artwork within the space. We spent a good 45 minutes playing together before moving on.
The main galleries are accessed up a large staircase that stretches around the edge of the entrance. Walking up it was really memorable; I used to live just down the road in Great Barr and visited regularly when I was at uni in Birmingham between 2000 and 2003. The building has lost none of its impact, the sight lines, dimensions and overall design is excellent, with spaces to linger at appropriate points. Travelling around the gallery really feels like you are on a journey. In the upper galleries there are staircases, twists and turns, with unexpected delights around corners.
I won’t spoil too much of the actual artwork other than to tell you a little bit about how it it put together. The gallery houses the Garmin-Ryan Collection, with pieces from prominent artists in the 20th Century such as Lucien Freud and Jacob Epstein. Painting, prints and sculpture can all be seen and everything is beautifully curated – I spent as much time looking at the painting frames as I did at the actual artwork.
A number of temporary exhibitions are on show, the current favourite being a jointly developed piece with Tate, who have paired pieces from their own collections with those from Walsall by theme, artist or subject, and some great interpretation along the way! The finalists of a drawing competition were installed on the upper floor galleries, which also features a roof garden with expansive views over the city-centre.
Like I said, the staff were really understanding and didn’t bat an eyelid when Mylo was running about and really playing with the space available, which made a huge difference to the enjoyment of our visit. We were both able to experience the gallery and the artwork in our own way. I felt able to take a good look whilst he darted about and hid round corners when he had enough of a particular section. Small considerations like the inclusion of a step-up at the basins in the toilets add the extra touches that show little people have been thought about.
For me the only issue was a lack of place to get a proper lunch. Costa does snacks and sandwiches, which i find pretty poor value and quite unfilling. Our issue was solved by a very helpful member of staff who directed us up the road towards the Leather Museum which had a brilliant, great-value cafe serving soup and jacket potatoes. To be honest, I would have stayed and looked round there too other than for the fact that I wanted to do the Art Gallery as there was some cracking activities on for children when we passed through.
I spent quite a bit of time lingering within the gallery as Mylo couldn’t be persuaded to look at art all the time. The gallery has picture windows looking out in all directions which we used to sit and describe what we saw. The beauty of the gallery building is simply that the architecture is preeminently usable, not just to view art but for many things. I think that the main difference between my past visited and this one was that I had not appreciated that about the building. Travelling without children allows you to focus solely on one thing. Travelling with kids means you have to work so much harder to get around and entertain them. The small differences in how easy this is make a big impact.
Overall the New Walsall Art Gallery ticks every box for me. Even though I have visited many times before, going as a mum have me a completely different point-of-view on the collection and venue. Anyone living within the Midlands or visiting the area should make time for a trip in my opinion.