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One year on from the opening The Hepworth Wakefield undertook a review of its interpretation and audience development practice. Having consulted with its many audiences using a variety of methods, the organisation developed innovative ways of making its collections, displays and exhibitions relevant and accessible.

 Natalie Walton, formerly Head of Learning at the Gallery, shares their story.


What is the overall ethos of The Hepworth Wakefield?

As a new organisation we are dedicated to placing audiences at the centre of our thinking and development. We are interested in meeting the needs of first time gallery goers as well as keeping regular visitors engaged with new experiences. Our remit for developing our audiences is international, national, regional and local. We are a tourist destination as part of Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle in partnership with Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Leeds Art Gallery and the Henry Moore Institute, with a visitor experience that appeals to a visiting audience as well as being a local venue for Wakefield residents.

For the first two years we have considered our local audiences when developing our interpretation strategy making the gallery accessible to non-gallery goers. We have taken an audience development approach to our interpretation, targeting local families with a dedicated family engagement programme; a long-term and successful youth initiative encouraging young people engaged in art, and those who are considered to be vulnerable, young adults and those who may be interested in other art forms.

Right at the start we developed our programmes of engagement with our future visitors, bringing in families, schools and access groups to tell us what they would like to see at the gallery and to test out activities and interpretation text. We constantly evaluate our programmes and act on the feedback we receive.

The Hepworth Wakefield. Image: H Webster

What has been the local response to the gallery?

Initially the local response was mixed towards The Hepworth Wakefield. There were those who loved the idea of Wakefield having an international art gallery, and those who disliked the building and did not feel it would be a place for them.

In the summer of 2010 we opened the gallery before the fit out was complete to allow visitors to explore the spaces and meet the staff. We carried out consultation and held a series of public events. The talks programme focused on the collection and Barbara Hepworth, so that people gained an idea of what would be on display once it opened. The talks were free and fully attended by 120 people, with visitors really appreciating the chance to see inside the building and meet the staff.

This is probably the most successful audience development programme we have developed as we witnessed our audience change in its opinion toward the gallery. On one occasion a member of the audience expressed their negative concerns about the gallery to a full audience, stating that the gallery was not for local people. A member of the audience responded with a statement of total civic pride, that the gallery was ‘their’ gallery and here for everyone – that it had been open with local residents and welcomed them into consultation. This was a turning point for the gallery’s relationship with local audiences; we felt that gallery staff did not need to defend the gallery as audience ownership was so strong. It highlighted to us the civic pride the gallery had generated by being an open organisation.

Getting familiar with the Collection. Image: H Webster

How do you produce written interpretation?

Written interpretation is an ever contested area of our work. We all struggle to please all people, all of the time. Interpretation is something that will never be right for everyone and so it is something we continue to assess, adapt and develop. Our written interpretation is relatively standard using the “absolute label holders” for our collection displays, and short vinyl text for our exhibitions. Every room in the gallery has a vinyl text panel with a general introduction to the theme of the room. Within the collection displays the absolute label holders offer three levels of text – a short label for title, date, artists name and medium, a medium label size offers a short interpretation, and a long label allows for extended information.

We spent a great deal of time debating the level of information and the type of information to present to our visitors. We began with a limited amount of information, offering the visitor the opportunity to read the room panel and make connections that relate to them. Having gathered feedback from our audiences from comment cards, exit surveys, and from staff talking to visitors on gallery, we have come to realise that there is a desire for more information. Although we are commended by visitors on the level of information our room panels give, we realise that our local visitors may require additional contextual information, in particular surrounding the local connections to our collection displays. We pride ourselves on making our displays relevant to our location, landscape and our heritage whether Hepworth or Yorkshire. This is something we are looking to bring out more in our interpretation material.

Visitor Comments:

 “Brilliant. I could say an awful lot about how good it is but the one thing that I have to tell you is how good the descriptions and explanations on the walls are. Plain English without pretension- we can understand it.”

 “I would love to see clearer and larger labelling of the exhibits, with more information about each one and maybe laminated sheets in each room with more background information.”

“Better than expected wonderful exhibition. Would have liked a bit more background and the inspiration for some pieces.”

We are now looking at using not only text labels but digital technology to hold sound files, film footage and additional information. In January we will be working with our university partners and young people to find and develop aural histories and futures to attach to the collection files on MODES. This will enable visitors to hear relevant stories about the landscapes in the collection from local resident voices, old and young. We are also looking to support our performance-related work as sound files to download as audio guides, including text labels written by young people and families as well as our curators. We recently introduced this idea for Volunteer Week in which we asked our volunteers to write a caption for their favourite work on display from the collection. These labels were then displayed with the work throughout the week.

The content of our labels is developed by our curators. Having researched the exhibition or display they are best placed to present the information. Our curators are very aware of our audience profiles, limiting the amount of art jargon and looking for interesting information that connects each work to the theme of the display and to the context of the gallery. Interpretation is then passed on to the Learning team, which we then edit for meaning, friendly approach and art jargon. In the past the texts have then gone to a member of staff without an arts background so that there are no assumptions being made because of arts education. Finally this is passed on to Marketing to give a final edit for accessibility. We do struggle at times with the contemporary exhibitions and the challenge to condense complex concepts into less than 200 words without dumbing-down the artists’ intentions.

It is because of the limits of written text interpretation that we offer an extensive live interpretation programme and we can say hand on heart that our Visitor Services staff are exceptional at engaging with audiences and are extremely knowledgeable about the works on display. We have overwhelmingly positive feedback about our staff engagement.

What other interpretation and engagement methods have you used?

Bringing the exhibitions to life through performance works well for us. It allows visitors to step back from the art expert expectations and watch someone else ask the questions that we all want to ask, but don’t feel we can. Our gallery is always lively with discussion and debate, children drawing, students, and performances. We have also supported zombie tours of the gallery as part of our post-apocalyptic themed exhibition, and alongside Barbara Hepworth’s Medical Drawings. We offered visitors the opportunity to have a zombie makeover or just come along and experience the works in a different context. To see two thousand zombies wondering around a gallery is something I will never forget. It has been a really successful event and definitely brought in new audiences.

Zombies at The Hepworth Wakefield! Image: H Webster

Yew Tree Youth Theatre have developed promenade plays around the gallery, for example a love story in which the gallery offers a neutral place for lost love, taking cues from the displays as points of conversation. The young people involved are amazing and we are looking to develop this further into a digital resource.

We look to develop a programme that meets the needs of selected audiences as well as our regular family audience interpretation. All our live events involve interpretation of, or engagement with, the displays in some way and we have experimented with a wide variety of activities from traditional front of house staff tours and curatorial tours, artist talks and in conversations, to performance based interpretation with our local youth theatre groups.

Other events we have developed include “I Collect”, a weekend in which we focus on collections. We asked people to consider the gallery collection and to bring in their own domestic collections so that they can talk to us about themselves as collectors. We then display their collection alongside our own and take professional installation shots for our website. The process of this event allows people to think about collections, whether art or museum collections, or whether it’s a personal collection of toys, nativity displays, coins, etc. and it encourages discussion about value and display.

“Brilliant to see a gallery that actively encourages to get involved. The backpack detective was fantastic, the activities on offer were fun. A great space, good selection of art. Would visit again.”

We’ve run events using other art disciplines such as contemporary dance, Asian dance and even parkour. Using other art forms offers us a way to tap into another language of interpretation. Dance and movement are particularly popular in the area with the legacy of Northern Ballet and Phoenix Dance. Working with dance as a medium lets us talk about the relationship of sculpture to the body, and the body in the landscape. Hepworth herself was interested in dance, so we can make strong connection to her work. We used a similar principle to invite fashion designer Peter Jenson to present his 2013 collection in the gallery amongst the Hepworth sculptures. Jensen’s collection was inspired by Hepworth’s work and so see the designs against the art work was a fascinating exercise in understanding artistic inspiration.

We want to bring the gallery to life for people. It’s important that we don’t exist for just an art world audience. We really look at who our audiences are – after all, if we are not connecting, then why are we doing it?

How do you gain information about your different audiences?

From the first month after opening, we have collected four exit surveys a day from visitors and we will continue doing this for at least three years. This gives us a strong understanding of how our audiences change as we move from being a new organisation to an established organisation. We review visitor feedback quarterly and are now moving into reviewing seasonally.

We worked with the consultants &Co to explore the visitor experience, which included written interpretation and developing visitor surveys, as well as a questionnaire for our Family Programme. We worked closely with a group called the ‘wheelers and wobblers’ who supported our work in opening us up to other groups, such as those who are visually impaired, and with whom we were also able to talk about what our audiences might want.

In addition, &Co have supported a series of “visitor safaris” by local people, existing visitors and those who have not visited the gallery. The safaris took participants to other arts organisations: Tate Liverpool, Bradford Cartwright Hall, Manchester Art Gallery and Yorkshire Sculpture Park, followed by a visit to The Hepworth.

The exercise focused on visitor experience and offered us an opportunity one year after opening to benchmark our performance against similar organisations. This also offered an opportunity to identify areas for improvement and development. Safari participants were asked to consider interpretation and the visitor experience with a prompt sheet at the different venues; this was followed by two discussion groups with &Co facilitating. It was important for us not to facilitate these discussions ourselves as we wanted the participants to be open and honest about their experiences and not inhibited by the presence of staff.

We were able to gain detailed information about a comparative experience and although the feedback was very positive towards the gallery there were areas measured in which we need to improve. Interpretation was discussed at length however many of the standard debates came up, for one person the information was right, for another there needed to be more. Much was said regarding a need to address interpretation in digital formats and this is something we are keen to develop.

Curating the Interior, Hepworth Wakefield. Image: H Webster

Over the last year we have been working on our audience matrix, applying audience type to the style of interpretation we provide for our exhibitions, enabling us to approach each exhibition in a targeted way. We are now looking at our organisational approach to audiences, trying to ensure that everything we do starts with an understanding of why we are doing it, and for whom. We have also developed a project register with a focus on the audiences as a starting point for project ideas. The aim is to ensure that we are focused on delivering against our audience matrix.

What benefits did using external consultants bring to The Hepworth Wakefield?

Our staff gathers the information from visitors which is important as it strengthens our relationship with our audiences. However, we would not have time to collate, analyse and format the information. There are also benefits in talking to external professionals who have worked with other organisations, which helps us to question ourselves; the discussion becomes wider than just the parameters of your organisation and its development.

How much did it cost to bring in external consultants?

Over three years including field researchers to collect data, quarterly reports (now seasonally), visitor Safari Focus Groups and other survey requirements, it has cost around £10-15k of our marketing and communications budget. We feel this is an important investment for the three years from opening as it gives the organisation the information and expertise to analyse the data into a format we can use. Without this information we would not be able to be so responsive to visitors’ needs. The research we gather is an important tool for demonstrating our value in the community and the benefit we bring to the region through the tourist economy and through the on-going development of local civic pride. Being able to use this research supports us to develop and strengthen relations with stakeholders and funders, as well as helping us as an organisation to make informed decisions about programme.

Engaged at the Hepworth Wakefield. Image: H Webster

Where are you up to now, with interpretation and your organisational development?

The Hepworth is constantly growing and developing as an organisation; we are still learning how we want to work as a team. In the initial stages of opening the teams worked closely together to ensure that the opening was a success. Following opening we have become more departmentalised in our approach. We realise this and are determined to develop a way of working that is cross-departmental, bringing in to all projects the knowledge and skills of our staff at the developmental stage. We have had training to support project working and we are all excited about moving forward in a new way. This has a greater impact across the organisation and it’s more beneficial as a learning organisation. For example, we get feedback from front of house about how an exhibition will work for them, considering audiences at the beginning of a project and developing interpretation as a project group made up of individuals across departments. This is a new development for us, and we’ll evaluate it over the next few seasons.

What advice would you give to other organisations?

Having gone through the development of a new gallery I would say to get to know your audiences. Our successes have come from spending time and being open with our local audiences. Our rewarding moments have been when our visitors feel at home in the gallery and want to return regularly because ‘it is a place for them’. The friendly nature of our front of house staff and our artists who deliver our programmes, our staff who run events and engage with our visitors, are what makes our gallery the open place it has become and so good staffing is essential.

“This is the second time we have been with our two children and the Hepworth remains one of the most impressive galleries I have ever been to.  Child friendly yet serious at the same time – a difficult balance to achieve.”

I also believe that we constantly question what we are doing and why. Who are we doing this for? What benefit does it have to the audience? What benefit does it have to the organisation? Without constantly questioning our approach we will not move forward.

Pre-Opening programme

Our pre-opening programme was also enormously important. Pre-opening we worked with five local schools and have continued a close working relationship with three of them. Teachers and pupils explored the possibilities of the learning and exhibition spaces. We brought in artists to explore the sculpture of Hepworth and Moore and to create with pupils their own large-scale sculptures to display in the gallery spaces. Large cardboard sculptures were created over the course of a day, and they were then curated in the space by the pupils themselves who were introduced to the challenges of sloping ceilings and no right angles in the exhibition spaces. As well as being a learning experience for the pupils, this was an opportunity for them to be the first “artists” to use the cargo lift, and the first to display in the gallery. Our curators were invited to see the works and commented to the children how important their work had been in demonstrating how large scale art work will look in the spaces. These children then went on to be photographed as part of the opening exhibition, and were invited to be the first official visitors over the footbridge and into the gallery on the Saturday morning of opening. This early engagement has strengthened our relationships with these schools and their parents, we often see the families returning to take part in family activities including our Art Pods, which bring local families back time and time again to complete the numerous gallery based activities. Our impact on local families has been our greatest achievement; families feel comfortable in the gallery, and we have regular visitors who use the gallery in their own way, lying flat out on the floor sketching confidently in the space.

School Visit, Hepworth Wakefield. Image: H Webster

The opening weekend of The Hepworth Wakefield was targeted at local audiences in which many local students, groups, and artists were involved. We created a mini-festival for visitors to enjoy. We worked with Leeds Metropolitan University to support the development of a fringe festival, which sat alongside the main opening activities. The fringe had a music and performance art programme with local bands and artists animating the outdoor spaces. The benefits of engaging local students and residents has subsequently been evidenced in our visitor breakdown, with our visitor survey for the first year telling us that we attracted 25% of our visitors from the local area, and 40,000 family visitors. This gives us an indication that our activities targeted at local audiences were successful.

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