Northern lights: Yorkshire is drawing art fans for its astonishing array of sculpture

The impact of Henry Moore and other modern artists, collectors and critics can be distinctively felt right across Yorkshire. This year, for the first time, the dots have been more formally joined between these institutions, with the launching of the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle

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The Independent Culture

When Henry Moore was a young man, he came into the centre of Leeds, went to the library and asked, "Have you got any books on sculpture?" The librarian replied, "What is sculpture?"

This is one of Lisa Le Feuvre's favourite stories about the artist. Now head of sculpture at the Henry Moore Institute (HMI), which is based in the northern city, she adds that Moore "vowed, if it were ever in his power, he would make sure that sculpture would be seen in Leeds and anyone could answer that question."

Nearly a century on, and we can safely say: job done. When his Reclining Woman: Elbow was removed from outside the art gallery in the town centre earlier this year, loaned to the re-opened Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, there was an outpouring of public sadness at her absence. But with the HMI (largely an academic organisation but with a rigorous public-exhibitions programme) and the municipal city art gallery standing adjacent to each other, the citizens of Leeds aren't short on other sculptures to gaze at. Leeds Art Gallery has an uncommonly strong permanent collection: "The sculpture collection is just amazing – it's literally only beaten by a cat's whisker by Tate Britain. It's important that we show it off," insists Le Feuvre (whose predecessor at the HMI, Penelope Curtis, went on to the top job as director of – you guessed it – Tate Britain).

But the impact of Moore, and other modern artists, collectors and critics – most notably Barbara Hepworth, who also studied at the radical Leeds School of Art in the early Twenties alongside Moore – can be distinctively felt right across Yorkshire. The Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) is only 17 miles away; as well as a large public collection, both outdoor and indoor, it's home to the Longside centre, where the Arts Council stores its sculpture collection. Only seven miles from there is the Hepworth Wakefield, the David Chipperfield-designed gallery housing contemporary art as well as the Hepworth Family Gift: a collection of full-size plaster working models for her bronzes, which can be seen as complete and beautiful sculptures in their own right.

This year, for the first time, the dots have been more formally joined between these institutions, with the launching of the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle. The initiative – which came from the galleries but is supported by the tourist board – aims to shout about how much top-class sculpture there is in Yorkshire, but also to simply raise awareness that these places are very near each other (it's a triangle with four points, really, although Leeds Art Gallery and the HMI are neighbours, meaning the rhubarb-riffing conceit still works, geometrically and geographically).

Leeds is only an hour by train from Manchester, two from London and three from Edinburgh; and then you're just 15 minutes away from Wakefield. The YSP is a little trickier to get to without a car, although buses now run from Wakefield every hour. The Hepworth and the YSP are eager to improve the connections; marketing officer for the former, Anna Ferris, says "our longer-term plan would be to have an art bus, which takes you through all four venues… At the moment, it's about providing all the information and signposts, making it as easy as possible".

The hope is that the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle – which has its own new jolly green leaflets, posters and loyalty cards – will encourage people to come up for a weekend and 'do' all four. Sarah Brown, curator at Leeds Art Gallery and of the Northern Art Prize, speaks of the hope to make the Triangle an "art pilgrimage".

"A lot of people don't realise how close it all is. I spend so much of my time in London, Glasgow, New York, and people don't realise what is here," she says. "There's this rich history being brought together with this kind of 'brand'."

I shrug on my Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle-branded tote bag, and set off on a two-day trip round the sculpture hot-bed of the UK. Meeting curators and staff at these four institutions – and they are, with only one exception, all young-ish women, all impressively capable and eloquent – it's clear that it really does go beyond a neat little tourist brochure or re-branding exercise.

Relationships between the organisations "already existed, to tell you the truth," says Le Feuvre. "We all do really different things, [so] for us it's about celebrating the differences and at times working together. It's not a slightly dodgy marketing campaign. I was so keen to do it because all the other venues are just brilliant; I go to them and respect them and they make a massive difference in how we think about art. It's not just bureaucracy – it's Yorkshire saying: 'We've got something amazing.'"

Frances Guy, curator at the Hepworth Wakefield, which opened in 2011, adds that "we've already done the first part of a shared programming of events; shortly after we opened, we had a conference about Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth and the Yorkshire landscape, and did that with the [other three organisations]. They're great colleagues to have in the vicinity. Hopefully, that will become something much stronger – it will be great to look at a collaborative program."

There are already obvious resonances. Moores and Hepworths crop up time and again, but it's a satisfying experience seeing the latter's finished sculptures dotted among the lush green grass of the YSP's 500 acres, and then to trot down the road to the Hepworth Wakefield and see galleries dedicated to her making process. And I was lucky enough to get a peek at Seizure, Roger Hiorns' council flat-turned-crystal cave: made on-site in an estate in London's Elephant and Castle, the building was transformed into a glittering, cobalt-blue, faintly menacing grotto when he filled it with 75,000 litres of copper sulphate in 2008; it's just been re-housed at the YSP. Meanwhile the Hepworth is about to open a new space in a disused mill next to the main gallery; the first work there, later this summer, will be Hiorns' series Youth (featuring his famous work of a naked man sitting on a bench that is on fire).

Making these sorts of connections can only strengthen the experience for the sculpture buff or the casual visitor alike; and one of the nice things about the Triangle is that it should appeal to both. Seizure, for example, was a massive popular hit in its previous incarnation – and much of the YSP feels very accessible. There's something deeply and widely appealing about seeing sculpture – from Sophie Ryder's giant rabbit-headed woman to Antony Gormley's tree-top figure – set in the rolling Yorkshire landscape. On the day I visit, it's full of excitable school children, and this feels the best way to introduce kids to sculpture.

Meanwhile, the Hepworth benefits from attracting architectural tourists too, drawn by David Chipperfield's inventive, multi-faceted, purplish concrete building: "We do get people stroking the outside," quips Ferris. And staff at both Leeds Art Gallery and the HMI talk of how, despite the former drawing locals and tourists and the latter drawing the more academically minded, thanks to a connecting glass corridor between them there's an easy overlap. The Triangle should mean even more cross-institutional cross-pollination, where families on days out, art students on research trips, mini-breaking couples or Riba nerds come for one attraction – but stay to see the others.

Cooperation is also a canny financial move. The more time people spend in the area, the better for all the institutions, and for other local businesses. But it is also evidence of a new, collaborative way of working – sharing resources, group marketing and so forth – that is surely going to be ever more needed as Government arts cuts slice and slice again. All of these galleries are committed to free entry; all are finding it harder to afford. But the Triangle scheme may help, and is itself appealing to funders: the Arts Council and Welcome to Yorkshire are both pouring money into the recent publicity push. Peter Murray, who founded the YSP in 1977 and is still executive director, explains: "It really makes sense for us to work together and hopefully by doing that we can promote ourselves – and bring more money into the region."

Certainly, the brochures and website not only help the curious visitor to navigate their way between venues, but to really make a trip of it. Having road (or train) tested it, I can confidently report it works out very nicely indeed. A couple of days is plenty to explore all four, with a bit of down-time in Leeds too – although you could easily give a whole day to exploring the huge grounds of the YSP, weather and mobility permitting. There are rather gorgeous cafés at each, but Welcome to Yorkshire proffer plenty of further suggestions for places to stay and eat (I kip at Leeds Marriott and eat at the recently opened Crafthouse restaurant, which affords lovely views over the city).

However, some of their rhetoric is, perhaps, a shade hubristic; a press release announcing the scheme trumpeted that "ambitious plans have been unveiled to make Yorkshire the sculpture capital of Europe". Well, maybe – but critics have rightly pointed out it's got a long way to go before it's rivalling Ancient Greek or Italian Renaissance work; other sculpture 'capitals' in Europe are not only actual, individual cities but are also home to considerably more impressive historic collections.

But when it comes to 20th-century sculpture, Yorkshire really is unusually rich. "I suspect there are few places in Europe with a concentration of investment in sculpture such as you have in Yorkshire," insists Murray, who initially set up the YSP almost as part of Bretton Hall College, where he was running a postgraduate course in art education. "The Yorkshire Sculpture Park didn't grow from the fact that Henry Moore was born here, but it helped! He was still alive when we first started and took a very active interest. To have Hepworth here, Moore here, Kenneth Armitage here… Damien Hirst [grew up] in Leeds. It might be a coincidence, or it might have something to do with the water, I'm not quite sure…" He trails off with a smile.

Maybe it is the water – or maybe it's the Yorkshire landscape itself. Sculpture takes up space, interacts with space, rather than recreates space; there isn't a three-dimensional equivalent of, say, a Constable landscape painting. And yet the natural environment undoubtedly is a huge influence on many sculptors, even if it emerges in more abstract ways.

This was something discussed at the 2011 joint symposium on Hepworth, Moore and the landscape of Yorkshire; Guy elaborates: "their work is directly and intimately connected with the landscape, and it is such an amazing landscape in Yorkshire – you see sculptural forms [in it]. Hepworth writes very eloquently about the Yorkshire landscape and she cites it quite late on in her career as an ongoing inspiration." In the gallery of her work at the Hepworth Wakefield, a caption has an elegant quote from her illustrating this: "I, the sculptor, am the landscape. I am the form and I am the hollow, the thrust and the contour."

And some sculpture isn't able to speak fully until it is sited within a landscape – hence the joy of the YSP. Murray is actually careful not to overstate the primacy of outdoor exhibiting space, saying "I don't necessarily think sculpture is better in the landscape… [But] landscape has an incredible impact on the way we think, the way we breathe, and the way artists operate."

He adds that, throughout the evolution of art in Britain, landscape has exerted a huge influence – but weirdly, not in sculpture, until more recently. "One of the peculiarities of 20th-century sculpture is the way that [it] suddenly became influenced by the landscape – prior to that there didn't seem to be any correlation between the two. With Moore, whose real ambition was to show sculpture in the landscape, and Hepworth, who said something like 'sculpture doesn't come alive until it comes into the landscape', there was a move in Britain – more than any other country – to actually find spots in the landscape to show sculpture."

The sculpture park, and the HMI – part of the Henry Moore Foundation, also founded in 1977, by the artist himself – helped shape this. "When we first started, there wasn't a great deal of interest in contemporary sculpture, at all," insists Murray. "I wanted to create an opportunity here for artists to work in the landscape but also for the public to experience art in the landscape. The early days were very difficult, there was a lot of opposition in actual fact. Contemporary sculpture was pretty contentious."

Although he couldn't put a finger on the exact moment, there was a sea-change in the status of sculpture. He points to a marching line of Great British talents: "Tony Caro, Antony Gormley, Anish [Kapoor], Andy Goldsworthy and David Nash… wave after wave of talented British sculptors came along and really established Britain as an important centre for sculpture internationally."

Today, British sculpture is probably no more or less contentious than any other artform; equally liable to inspire joy and wonder, or 'but is it art?' dismissal. It's vibrant and visible – and there are plenty of books about it in our libraries. That one northern triangle of the UK is seeing several organisations coming together to celebrate it, and promote it as an immerse-yourself-in-art destination, seems both a sensible, pragmatic idea, and a rather inspiring one. Henry Moore, one suspects, would approve.