Valued at more than pounds 5m, the Garman-Ryan collection was given to Walsall in 1973 by Kathleen Garman, widow of the sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein. Born at nearby Wednesbury, she wanted her art treasures to be somewhere close to her home. 'She felt that London already had an embarrassment of riches,' said Walsall's head of galleries and museums, Peter Jenkinson.
Apart from holding probably the most representative collection of Epsteins in the country, Walsall's present gallery contains works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian, Goya, Modigliani, Cezanne, Gaugin, Constable, Turner and Reynolds.
Walsall council, which decided that its collection needed a proper home, applied for and won one of the Government's City Challenge awards, and is now planning a new development of art and craft shops around its canal basin with a modern gallery right at its heart. If approved, work on the site is expected to start on 1 April. The gallery is likely to cost between pounds 2m and pounds 3m and be open by 1996.
'The Garman-Ryan collection is a substantial treasure for the town,' said Mike Bird, leader of the Conservative-controlled council, 'and we're hoping the new setting will attract more visitors.'
At present, the collection attracts 55,000 visitors a year.
Peter Jenkinson, a 32-year-old from Essex, is determined that what he calls 'Walsall's best-kept secret' will soon be known by a much wider public. 'I'm an unapologetic populist,' he said.
'I believe that museums and galleries should be accessible to everybody. In the New Year we shall be putting a great effort into letting local people know much more about this fantastic collection.'
Lady Epstein would almost certainly have approved. She left for London at the age of 16. The daughter of the district medical officer from Wednesbury met the artist from New York's Lower East Side in a Soho restaurant in August, 1921. She was to bear him three children before they married in 1955.
After his death four years later, she began to build up the art collection with the help of Sally Ryan, an American sculptress and the grand-daughter of a multi-millionaire.
Lady Epstein would make occasional trips back from London to see the works before she died in the late Seventies.
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