Arts? Not here, thank you

Plans for a cultural centre have split a Berkshire town.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The Coach and Horses, a pretty pub in Wallingford, Berkshire, is an unlikely champion of Britain's first "arts park", proposed for a stretch of Thames water meadow on the other side of the town's ancient bridge.

Plans for the pounds 42m park are due to be unveiled at the Danish embassy next month. The exterior is modelled on the Louisiana Museum, built on the edge of Copenhagen in the late Fifties and designed by Vilhelm Wohlert. The plans have caused deep divisions in the town and certainly helped to topple the ruling Conservative council in the local elections earlier this month.

Nick Wheelan, landlord of the Coach and Horses, looks at the model of the arts complex on display in the bar and says, "It is a once in a lifetime opportunity for Wallingford." Despite a ruined castle, a particularly elegant 17th-century town hall and a lovely stretch of river, Wallingford has failed to make it on to the tourist map.

Ian Beckwith, a Labour councillor and the town's newly elected mayor, argues that the park - the size of three football pitches - will ruin one of the most unspoilt and beautiful stretches of the upper Thames. Together with John Bellamy, leader of Crowmarsh parish council (Crowmarsh is the small village across the river from Wallingford), Mr Beckwith is determined to preserve the 32-acre site for walkers, anglers and weekend picnickers.

Mr Bellamy says the proposal is "an outrage". A case of nimbyism? He says not, pointing out that the owner of the site, John Morton, a London businessman, has tried to develop it twice before, first in 1981 for a block of luxury riverside flats, and again in 1989 with a housing and leisure complex. Both applications were turned down.

Mr Bellamy says the concept of an "arts park" is essentially an attempt to persuade the local planning authority that this development, unlike the previous two, will benefit the public and is a cultural rather than a commercial enterprise. Local residents agree.

Olivia Woodhouse, who lives in Crowmarsh, says that although the concept of the arts park is "laudable and imaginative, it should be built on reclaimed land in one of our major towns. To apply the scheme to the proposed site on the meadow below Wallingford's historic bridge, where almost any development would damage the town's special relation to its riverbank, is madness."

Oxfordshire County Council has already opposed the planning application and is urging South Oxfordshire District Council (the local planning authority for Wallingford) to refuse permission when it considers the scheme again later this year. The county says the scheme is contrary to the general, environmental, employment, recreation and mineral policies in the local structure plan.

The project's promoters, led by a charitable trust that is seeking pounds 20m funding from the Millennium Commission, says the gallery will be a "family event" with artists present on the premises and a place for children and adults to experiment with different media such as clay and oil paints.

A leaflet explaining the project promises a sculpture trail, a permanent collection of contemporary pictures, architectural models, graphic art and sculpture, the best of modern furniture and computer art. In other words, something for everyone interested in the plastic and fine arts.

Michael Posner, the trust's secretary, says that the trust does not own any artwork, but, "There are Royal Academicians who would be delighted to have their work on display, and since we are associated with the Louisiana Museum, there will be transfers of material from there." He also expects artists to donate work, and says that Britain's national galleries and museums are bursting with works they cannot show.

While the link with the Louisiana Museum is a point in favour of the project, the two schemes, despite the same architect, represent different propositions. Louisiana, which opened 37 years ago, was Knud Jensen's dream come true. Jensen, who rescued old houses, was more involved with literature than fine art, owning a majority shareholding in one of Denmark's oldest publishing houses. Nevertheless, he also owned a sizeable collection of modern art, which he donated to the new gallery.

The museum began with concerts for friends and visitors, who were asked to let themselves in (the key was kept under the doormat); it was only when Jensen sold his cheese export business to Kraft, the US food corporation, that he was able to establish the non-profit-making Louisiana Foundation. He commissioned Wohlert and co-architect Jorgen Bo, who designed a series of connected galleries laced through the trees. The museum remains one of the most delightful anywhere in the world.

The arts park at Wallingford could be beautiful, too. Thorburns, a firm of leisure consultants, says that three-quarters of the site will be taken up by a nature reserve with a public meadow and a new lake; when the Thames is high, it would flood the site creating a "watery" setting for the galleries set above the water on stilts.

Projections by the consultants suggest that the arts park will need to charge a pounds 5 entrance fee (this does not take into account the cost of reaching Wallingford, which has no railway station and is poorly served by local transport). That figure is based on 350,000 visitors coming this way each year - 150,000 more than Louisiana in its early days, several times the population of Crowmarsh and twice the population of Wallingford. A case of the tail wagging the dog if there ever was one.

Comments