Ten years after New Art Gallery Walsall opened its doors, Graham Young sees how the people’s gallery is faring.

Walsall probably wasn’t the most obvious place to build a £21 million art gallery in celebration of the New Millennium.

But, since it’s at the heart of such a heavily populated region, why not?

Her Majesty The Queen clearly recognised as much herself by agreeing to open the 37m tall building on May 5, 2000.

Almost ten years later, I can see two swans slipping and sliding their way across the neighbouring frozen canal... almost if they’d been invited by royal appointment.

Inside, as measured by an automatic counter at the door, attendances have been steadily increasing since Stephen Snoddy became its director in May 2005.

They were just shy of 201,000 last year – important figures when your budget is £2.3 million and there are 35 employees involved.

The building is owned by Walsall Council and, like the Middlesborough Institute of Modern Art, supported through The Arts Council.

There are more than 1,500 exhibits in space that’s equivalent to the area of a football field.

Star attractions includes the renowned Garman Ryan exhibition, donated to the borough in 1972 by Lady Kathleen Garman, and the Epstein Archive, acquired in 2006.

Two key factors keep Belfast-born Stephen’s feet firmly on the ground.

The chill wind of recession blowing through the corridors of arts establishments nationwide means that “at times it’s tough, you have to make decisions”.

The other key factor is that he’s a leader who found his way to the top by mucking in at the bottom.

Now aged 50 and also a rugby union referee, Stephen (and his twin brother Paul) is the youngest of five children who were all born within six years to an art historian father.

Although the Troubles generally passed them by, Stephen admits “there were two bombs I wasn’t far away from and my sister, Sheila, saw a policeman get shot... but you kind of got used the situation”.

One near-neighbour pupil from his school died when a bomb being carried into town by an IRA member unexpectedly went off on a train he might have been on himself if he’d also just been playing rugby.

In a stark contrast of fortunes, Stephen’s eldest brother, Alan, became a football referee at the World Cups of 1986 (Morocco v Portugal) and 1990 (Colombia v West Germany) and now tours the world monitoring standards.

A huge fan of JMW Turner, whom he ranks alongside Shakespeare in terms of quality and influence, Stephen trained as a fine artist at Belfast College of Art, graduating in 1983 with an MA in Fine Art.

By selling his works to private collectors, he was just beginning to make his way at a community arts centre in Lisburn, just outside Belfast, when the person running it was asked to leave.

Three weeks after joining on a £50-a-week lift-you-off-the-dole scheme, Stephen switched from painting in the attic to running the centre himself.

Unwittingly sowing the seeds for his downfall as an artist while still only being paid £50 per week, he began an 18-month stint managing the gallery himself in a large, six-bedroom, late-Victorian house where the only other employees were a secretary, a gardener for the ten-acre site and the mandatory security officer.

Stephen took up some carpets, sandblasted the floors, painted the walls and created a darkroom and pottery workshop. Exhibitions were developed featuring works by people he knew, while children were encouraged to attend holiday classes.

“There’s no way you can be an artist and a director,” he says. “I realised that (being a director) was what I wanted to do, though, of course, I’d give it all up if I could paint like Turner. . . or play football like George Best.”

Slaving away at the grass roots end of the arts world paid dividends.

After being awarded a postgraduate diploma in art gallery and museum studies at the University of Manchester, Stephen has since held senior posts everywhere from Manchester to Southampton, Milton Keynes, Gateshead and Norwich.

Five years ago he joined the New Art Gallery Walsall.

Believing in all-round excellence ahead of “putting all of my eggs into one basket with a ‘blockbuster’ exhibition”, Stephen improved the gallery’s website and worked on making the programme “better and more adaptable”.

Last year’s Outsider’s ‘street art’ exhibits, for example won a whole, new audience.

With wife, Sandra, currently studying for an MA in photography, one of Stephen’s other favourite exhibitions was Birmingham photographer Stuart Whipps’ account of the Longbridge car factory closure.

Stephen also loves exhibits which surprise, so he particularly admired a foyer chandelier that was unrecognisably made out of 25,000 tampons by Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos.

He also helped to attract Costa Coffee to run the new – and very attractive – ground floor refreshment area where, until recently, it was the only ‘branded’ coffee shop in town.

The old fourth floor restaurant was closed and turned into an exhibition space.

Today, existing plans for celebrity gardener Diarmuid Gavin to create a rooftop garden are on hold, until they can be fully funded and, of course, guaranteed not to affect the exhibits down below.

“We have the only public view of the town other than from a car park,” says Stephen. “But we have to create something that doesn’t need to be watered.”

If the adjacent waterside development finally begins this year, Stephen is hoping that by being in the middle between a supermarket at one end and new apartments/restaurants at the other, the gallery will become a self-sustaining hub at the heart of everything.

Stephen believes it would be “impossible” to hire a fund-raiser who could recoup more than £1,000 worth of wages and costs per week from the private sector in order to begin to benefit the gallery. Hence one of his best ideas was probably the simplest.

“Some people felt intimidated by the building so we put a big sign up outside saying ‘Admission Free’ which is lit up 24 hours per days,” he says.

“The figures went up immediately. We reckon it’s added 10,000 to the annual attendance alone, or 200 per week.”

In the art gallery world, clearly every bit helps. While the gallery supports local talents including Simon and Tom Bloor, Faye Claridge and Sima Gonsai, many artists whose works have been displayed over the years have sent their own tenth birthday cards for a new exhibition starting this week.

In another nice touch, the public has also had a chance to enter submissions, too.

Were Tony Blair still in office today, he’d probably refer to The New Art Gallery Walsall as “The People’s Gallery”.

But, in a today’s age of austerity, Stephen is not impressed with the legacy of another Millennium project – The Dome, now known as The O2 Arena. “That would probably cost £1 billion to build today, the New Art Gallery Walsall £30 million,” he says.

“Imagine how many galleries, small theatres, sports centres and libraries we could have had for the same money.”

In February, 2010, it’s a not unreasonable question to ask.

* Ten of Walsall's best exhibitions

In no particular order, art critic Dave Freak selects ten significant and popular exhibitions from The New Art Gallery Walsall’s first decade.

* Blue – the first exhibition at The New Art Gallery looks at the colour blue, with contributions from Picasso, Magritte,  Miro, Damien Hirst, Anish Kapoor, Bridget Riley and Marc Chagall, whose Blue Circus (on loan from Tate) returns for Party!

* Human And Divine – a brief history of 2,000 years of Indian sculpture with a collection of predominantly sacred works.

* Christopher Le Brun – survey of paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures by one of the leading figures to emerge from the 1980s British art scene.

* Outsiders – fresh and exhilarating works by international artists inspired by traditions of graffiti art and pop’ culture.

* Hidden Histories – the gallery continues to break new ground with the first international historical survey of the lives and work of 20th century gay artists.

* Hew Locke – solo exhibition from the Guyana-raised now London-based artist featuring a Cardboard Palace and a huge portrait of the Queen constructed from small plastic toys and trinkets.

* Cult Fiction – exploring the relationship between art and comics with Marcel Dzama, David Shrigley, Robert Crumb, Joe Sacco, Posy Simmonds and more.

* Andy Warhol – early illustrative works dating from the 1950’s and 1960’s by the future Pop Art master.

* Andrew Tift – one of many West Midlands’ artists supported by the gallery over the last decade (also see Stuart Whipps, Richard Billingham, Juneau Projects, Mitra Memarzia etc), the work of award-winning Walsall-born portraitist Tift has since entered the gallery’s permanent collection.

* Fairy Tale – another in a long line of successful themed shows (also see the fame-fed Starstruck and food themed Pot Luck) revisits the worlds of Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen with dark consequences. Featuring Beauty ravished by the Beast, and a giant castle constructed from a single piece of paper measuring 6m x 6m.