Wonders this way

Yorkshire Sculpture Park had it all - except a suitable flagship to whet visitors' appetites. Now it's got that too, reports Elaine Williams

Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Bretton Hall, West Bretton, Wakefield

Visitor centres are a mixed blessing. A necessary evil for most historic sites and cultural attractions, they are so often full of commercial tat and questionable displays that they detract from the point of the visit. It is possible to become so bogged down by shop and show that one almost forgets to venture forth and experience the real thing.

Not so at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. This splendid 18th-century country estate, which holds within its woods, the fold of its hills, by lakeside and in formal garden the sculptures of such artists as Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Antony Gormley and Sir Anthony Caro, has a new centre specifically designed to direct and whet the appetite for this stunning outdoor gallery. When you sit on the first-floor slatted cafe terrace overlooking this amphitheatre of gardens and parkland with tantalising glimpses of sculpture in the long grass, you can't wait to get out and explore.

Until this summer, sculpture park punters shared an uncertain tradesmen's entrance with students and visitors to Leeds University College Bretton Hall. Their only reassurance that they had come to the right place for sculpture was a kiosk selling ice-creams, postcards, the odd book and a few inadequate artefacts. The routes into the park, the sculpture trail, the formal walled Bothy Garden with its indoor galleries and tearoom, or the Henry Moores resplendent among the sheep in the old deer park, were not obvious. For collections of national and international importance the entrance seemed makeshift.

Now, as part of a pound;9.5 million redevelopment, the sculpture park has a significant visitor centre with cafe, auditorium, meeting rooms, galleries and bookshop, which makes sense of the space around it and does justice to the status of the collections. The narrow, long, low structure, hidden from the park by a belt of trees, is essentially a promenade running east to west along the contours of the land. Created from cedar, sandstone and glass by architects Feildon Clegg Bradley, it provides a meditative walkway, a bridge from a new entrance out in the country park into the formal terraces of the Bothy.

The approach, clearly marked from a new roundabout close to the M1, winds through the estate from the original Archway Lodge, taking in vantage points originally imagined more than 200 years ago, through trees and rough pasture landscaped in the manner of Capability Brown.

The centre has been built to support the increasing numbers of visitors to the park - now up to 250,000 a year, including 30,000 schoolchildren - and will attract many more. It is pivotal to a redevelopment plan that should make the park a national stop-off point, a major player in the cultural transformation of the North, forming a triangle with Salford Quays and the Baltic in Gateshead.

The new facilities also mark phase one of the redevelopment plan, which also included the purchase of 237 acres of land to the south of Bretton Hall, called Longside.

Earlier this year a vast old equestrian centre on Longside was fitted out to enable YSP to hold an exhibition in March of Sir Anthony Caro's large-scale "sculpitectures". Longside is currently closed to allow the construction of studio units and a permanent gallery for large-scale works. In phase two of the plan, costing pound;3 million, the centre will be linked to an underground gallery beneath the Bothy gardens, which will provide secure and atmospherically controlled spaces for smaller fragile works, and enable the park to attract major international shows. There are also plans to build indoor workshops for educational use.

The transformation has already prompted the Arts Council to decide to move its national collections from the Hayward Gallery, London, to Yorkshire. All of this is a tribute to the vision of Peter Murray, the sculpture park's director, who helped to found it 25 years ago when he was leading a postgraduate course in art education at Bretton Hall.

The Yorkshire Sculpture Park differs markedly from international sculpture parks with major collections created in the Sixties, such as Storm King in New York and Hakone Open Air Museum in Japan, in its commitment to curating a programme of temporary open-air exhibitions by mid-career and younger artists as well as international names, through an installation, research and residencies projects programme. In addition, all curatorial work includes innovative education and outreach programmes. Last year, several schools worked at the park on gifted and talented projects, and, in partnership with the Feiweles Trust and University of Leeds Arts Education, YSP organises an annual bursary for an artist to work with regional schools to support the arts curriculum.

Hundreds of thousands of young children, postgraduate students and the elderly and retired have been given access to sculpture workshops and masterclasses to create structures in landscape, as well as lectures and seminars. Given the development of conceptual and installation art over the past two decades, and the continuing debate about the nature of galleries and the redundancy of "white cube" space, the foundation of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park as a flexible, changing art environment carries foresight.

Art within YSP revels in this debate. Any visitors lulled into romantic reverie by the glorious landscape would be pulled up short by Shaun Pickard's neon sign "Unnatural" winking wickedly from the branch of an oak tree, a witty and acerbic commentary on the potential and folksy pitfalls of landscape art. On the other hand, Scottish sculptor Ronald Rae's monolithic granite sculptures of animals and humans, some weighing more than 15 tonnes, currently showing along the access sculpture trail, seem ideally placed in this generous environment.

For children, this is a perfect introduction to art and notions about art. They can run, climb, shout; they can touch, explore, hide; they can be noisy or quiet and reflective; they can ignore the sculptures or become part of them, as they choose. A day at YSP is a day well spent for toddler and elder and all those in between.

Sculptures by Marino Marini (1901-80), one of Italy's most eminent 20th-century artists, are showing in the Bothy and Pavilion galleries from August 10 to November 17. For information about school visits and other education events contact the education department on 01924 830642. General number: 01924 830302; email: info@ysp.co.uk; website: www.ysp.co.uk

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