14th January 2000 at 00:00
Heather Neill explores space in the Midlands. New Art Gallery, Walsall

What would you expect to find between BHS and Woolies at the top of a busy shopping street in a Midlands market town? Not so long ago in Walsall it would have been a derelict area used as a car park. Now that space, with the canal on one side and the leather works nearby, is occupied by the New Art Gallery, a splendid building designed by architects Caruso St John. The company's plans for a pale terracotta-clad gallery, which appears to be open to the retail area rather than turning its back on the shoppers, won it a competition that attracted 173 entries including some from distinguished rivals.

On an icy day not long before Christmas, its director, Peter Jenkinson, talks excitedly about his plans for the opening in February. "I'm determined the first people across the threshold will be children." Jenkinson is committed to bringing the community, especially the young, into the gallery and he is so full of beans, so brimming with pleasure in his work, that he lacks even the slightest hint of do-goodery. His track record as a director and fervent advocate of free admission to galleries and museums - even special exhibitions at Walsall will be open to all - are proof of his leading role in making art accessible. The New Gallery has an impressive list of sponsors.

The core exhibition will be the Garman Ryan Collection, previously housed above Walsall Library. While there, despite cramped conditions and few resources, it was often visited by teenagers after Saturday morning swimming or shoppers seeking a few minutes' peace. It hosted imaginative, interactive sessions for children of all ages, including the under-fives.

The Garman Ryan Collection is an eclectic mix of works from a range of periods and cultures including pieces by Monet, Degas and Van Gogh. It was put together by two women, Kathleen Garman, wife of the sculptor Jacob Epstein, and her friend Sally Ryan. Small works by little-known artists will sit alongside more important ones and they will be arranged in themes - portraits, landscapes and so on - in the heart of the gallery, a two-storey area with a welcoming domestic feel. The collection includes around 40 pieces by Epstein himself, a sculptor now rather under-rated. Peter Jenkinson hopes to make Walsall a world Epstein centre for academics as well as the casual visitor. There is a library and study area with unusual opaque windows through which shines pearly, wintry light.

But the galleries nearest the imposing entrance area are devoted to children. The visitor crosses the great concret and wood span of the foyer, which is not only welcoming, but simply asking for performance (a dance event will be incorporated into the launch celebrations). Visitors can then head for the Children's Discovery Gallery, or a sweeping staircase which is enough to bring out the Ginger Rogers in anyone. To the left of the discovery gallery is the "shop window", a glass-fronted area where the exhibits will change regularly and which immediately links the gallery to its retailer neighbours. They have joined in with a will and, when a special exhibition, Blue: borrowed and new, featuring the significance of the colour in contemporary art, opens in February, their window displays will be blue. Proof that the pound;21 million gallery, built with pound;15.75 million Arts Lottery grants and local funding, is not, in Peter Jenkinson's words, perceived as "a spaceship that has flown in from another planet".

Jenkinson and education officer Nicky Boden are keen to recount some of the statistics of the new building. There are, for instance, 129 miles of Douglas fir in the panelling, a wood with pleasingly variable grain which has also been imprinted into the concrete. The handrails alongside the stairways are all covered in deliciously tactile leather. The concrete beams in the entrance hall are unusually long and deep, giving the impression of a medieval cathedral, except that there are no pillars. And the first people to feel at home in all this splendour will be nursery and school-age children.

The Discovery Gallery is equal to any other gallery area. "There is no quality drop," says Jenkinson. Small children may be found putting together Fuzzy Felt variations on a Matisse or slotting together a Braque jigsaw. Older ones may be studying (perhaps with Ian Smith, the first artist-in-residence), but there will be a Damien Hirst spin painting and an Estelle Thompson abstract on the wall to contemplate and to set off other creative ideas.

There will also be a sculpture called "Beast" by Laura Ford. This appealing donkey-like creature, looking abashed and a little gawky, is made of plaster, chicken wire and blue blanketing. A little woolly dribble hangs from his nose. Nicky Boden explains how useful he will be in discussing issues such as bullying, but we both know he is going to be a much-loved mascot. Already staff are making excuses to pay him a visit in the basement, where he awaits his new life upstairs.

Open House, a series of free events and activities to celebrate the Gallery's opening, will take place from February 21 to March 19.Tel: 01922 654400. Website: www.artatwalsall.org.uk

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