Anyone who has not visited the Hatton Gallery in the past year is likely to be in for a shock when they do – the building is a far cry from its previous incarnation and has been gloriously restored and redeveloped in what constitutes more a transformation than a facelift.
Professor Eric Cross spent 15 years as the Dean of Cultural Affairs, making him directly responsible for cultural links between the University and the wider community. The redevelopment of the Hatton Gallery was an important part of his work, and something he had long been aiming to do.
“We had wanted to include the Hatton Gallery in our work on developing the Great North Museum in 2009, but we just didn’t have the funding at the time,” he explains. “It’s always been a fantastic gallery, but we did feel it was punching below its weight regionally and it was easy to miss as it’s hidden in the middle of campus! We wanted to make it more accessible.”
Professor Richard Talbot, Head of Fine Art, wholeheartedly agrees with his colleague: “It had really stopped being fit for purpose through some poor design decisions in the 1980s. We wanted to bring the Hatton up to the standards of any good contemporary gallery.”
Let there be light
The professors agree that there was a fundamental problem with the lighting. “The gallery had lowered, suspended ceilings and a very dark red parquet floor,” exclaims Professor Talbot.
“It was way past its sell-by date,” adds Eric.
“The quality of the space had become compromised,” continues Richard. “Now when you walk into the building – and I think it’s a beautiful example of Brutalist architecture – you are immediately aware of the kind of building you are in. It no longer feels like some kind of odd annex, which it did before. You can read the architecture much more comfortably and feel that everything is better connected.”
“We’ve actually moved the entire main entrance and reception area,” says Eric. “It used to go straight into the Edwardian Gallery, which we felt was a waste of the most important part of the Hatton, but now it no longer does that, which has enhanced the impact of the Edwardian Gallery.”
Improvements to environmental controls means there is no longer any need to worry about the gallery being too hot or too cold, too dry or too humid. This will enable the Hatton to maximise its use of the 3,500 works it possesses.
“One of the things we are trying to do is use our permanent collection a bit more,” says Eric. “There are some very fine works which weren’t always seeing the light of day before.”
Principal among the Hatton Gallery’s permanent works is Kurt Schwitters’ Merz Barn Wall. “The space it was originally in felt a bit like somewhere you walked past in the process of trying to get somewhere else!” says Richard.
“Now it is in a slightly more enclosed space with a door at either end, so it feels less like a corridor! You have to go into a particular space where it is located. Replacing the red parquet with a simple concrete floor and improving the lighting has made it look crisper, more considered.”
We get the opportunity to display cutting-edge new work in a heritage setting
Increased usage and footfall
The students, both undergraduate and postgraduate, have also benefited from the redevelopment.
“Absolutely,” agrees Richard. “We’ve made one of the spaces in the gallery a dedicated teaching/learning space. Now students, children and any other group can come and work in the centre of the gallery with all this art around them. It’s a great space, with high ceilings and simulated daylight. It must be inspirational for them.”
“One of the unique selling points of the Hatton Gallery is that it sits within a very active Fine Art department,” says Eric. “It’s very exciting that we can get that mixture of heritage and creativity, and the opportunity to display cutting edge new work in a heritage setting.”
As for the impact the redevelopment will have, it’s a bit too soon to say, but all the signs thus far are encouraging.
“Our target figures are for 60,000 a year rather than the 25,000 we were getting before,” continues Eric. “It’s still fairly early days, but we were really pleased with the reaction to our reopening last year.
“I’m very aware, from the exhibitions the gallery has been putting on, which are very well attended, and from the nice publications which accompany those exhibitions, that everything feels much richer and more visible now,” concludes Richard.
* Hatton Gallery, managed by the Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums on behalf of Newcastle University.
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