Dear Editor, As Mayor of Walsall in 1996-7, I had the privilege and great pleasure of accepting the £20m Lottery cheque for the building of the New Art Gallery, whose tenth birthday you fittingly commemorated in your feature (Post, February 11) I sincerely wish the gallery well in its second decade.
However, I must confess I have had some issues with the so-called “people’s gallery” over its first ten years, by far the most serious of these being absolutely current and ongoing, namely, its – and the council’s – apparent lack of interest in the “Staffordshire Hoard.”
May I remind readers that this priceless find was unearthed literally yards from the Walsall borough boundary at Brownhills, that Brownhills is the nearest settlement to the site, and that Walsall’s internationally-known New Art Gallery is the nearest secure high-profile facility that could provide one of the permanent Midland homes for the Hoard, and is arguably the most appropriately located of any?
Gallery director Stephen Snoddy, you report, rightly has an eye to increasing visitor numbers. You might think, therefore, that he and Walsall Council, given the huge publicity, visitor, tourist and economic benefits, would have been first in the queue to offer a home for the Hoard.
However, I have before me copies of correspondence between a concerned member of the public and Walsall Council asking them to bid to get the Hoard on display in the New Art Gallery.
This man was shocked to receive two letters from a senior council officer, who, while agreeing how “disappointing” it would be if the Hoard were to be “housed at Stoke, who have only a very tenuous connection with its history”, goes on to explain at some length that the New Art Gallery would be a quite unsuitable home for the Hoard, except, perhaps, for a “very short-term exhibition”: this on the basis that it is a “nationally recognised gallery for contemporary art and has neither the facilities nor the expertise to offer a permanent location for the Staffordshire Hoard.” I think it is safe to assume Mr. Snoddy was consulted as to what should be said in these replies (and if he wasn’t, he would be right to be very upset, and I am sure he’ll advise your readers accordingly!).
In fact, Walsall Council didn’t even join the numerous interested local authorities on the steering group set up by the Government Office for the West Midlands, and the group decided – obviously in Walsall’s absence – that Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the Potteries Museum at Stoke should bid for the Hoard and provide its permanent homes.
I understand that, at last, long after the horse has bolted, Walsall Council’s Conservative leadership is gearing up to debate the Hoard at full council, but as far as I am aware, to date, in all of the months since this historic discovery on the borough boundary, neither the New Art Gallery, nor any leading member of Walsall Council, has expressed any public view about the Hoard or where it should be housed.
It’s as if nothing had happened, as if the thing did not exist - and the golden opportunity that just begged to be grasped, the opportunity that would have cemented the position of the gallery and done so much for the regeneration of Walsall, was let slip.
People in Walsall rightly ask: “Why Birmingham, and why Stoke, for goodness’ sake? Why not Walsall?”
The answer, sadly, seems to be that while the former showed interest – and good luck to them, I say! – the latter didn’t.
The good citizens of Walsall really deserved better than this.