Art beats going to the pictures

More people visit galleries than cinemas - and 20 more are planned, reports Catherine Pepinster

BRITAIN is enjoying an art gallery renaissance, with at least 20 new galleries being planned across the country.

Industrial towns, ancient cities and even the meadows of the Thames Valley will benefit; while artists who will be shown to be much greater effect range from Ruskin and Lowry to the French impressionists.

While proposals for the Tate's new Bankside gallery in London are well known, many of the others are not. The new buildings will cost a total of pounds 200m, and as well being showcases for Britain's leading contemporary artists, will also be designed by some of the country's leading architects including Terry Farrell and David Chipperfield.

Although the initiative for most of the proposed galleries comes from local authorities, the finances depend on those two modern-day bogeymen - the National Lottery and Europe.

Critics who believe that subsidising the arts via the lottery only benefits an affluent elite are quite wrong, says Bill Macnaught, the man behind a pounds 20m gallery in Gateshead.

"Look at the queues at the Tate for the Turner Prize show. There is a genuine upsurge of interest in contemporary art, but not everyone can travel to London to see it."

Museums and galleries have never been more popular. In 1993, 110 million visits were made to galleries, compared to 103 million visits to the cinema.

Ten of the galleries are being designed to house changing exhibitions of contemporary art, and another four will provide new space for existing collections which cannot be shown because of a lack of space. The rest will be accommodated in refurbished premises, including all the accroutrements of the modern gallery: education spaces, cafes, shops and interactive media.

Among the most important is a new pounds 10m gallery which will be used to house the outstanding Garman-Ryan collection of modern art and sculpture, left to Walsall by the second wife of sculptor Jacob Epstein and currently housed in the overcrowded Walsall Museum. For years,the Black Country town has been linked in the public imagination to heavy industry, but it is also home to one of Britain's most important collections of art, including works by Picasso Monet and Goya.

Also on display in the new gallery will be sculptures of Epstein's own family, complete with their cat and dog, Frisky.

North of the border, Timothy Clifford, director of the National Galleries of Scotland, is planning "a Scottish Musee D'Orsay" in the centre of Glasgow. Housed with-in an old post office, it will show art from the Victorian era to the present day.

The Glasgow space will be complemented by an Edinburgh gallery designed by Terry Farrell and dedicated to the Scottish-Italian artist Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, while in Inverness the 2000 Artspace is a pounds 15m project devoted to contemporary Scottish art. Its patrons include Ian Anderson, the Jethro Tull singer who is the town's biggest employer through his fishbusiness.

But it is in the north of England that the greatest number of new galleries are being planned. Among them are contemporary art galleries in Berwick upon Tweed, Gateshead and Sunderland; an extension to the Laing gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne ; and a new Ruskin gallery in Lancaster.

Art is not just a metropolitan venture. The idea of rural galleries is also beginning to catch on in Britain, inspired by the Danish Louisiana gallery, spectacularly set in gardens on the Baltic coast.

At Wallingford, Oxfordshire, Louisiana's architect, Vilhelm Wohlert, is designing a pounds 40m art park in 32 acres besides the Thames, while the Mid Wales Centre for the Arts will also enjoy a pastoral setting within the grounds of Powys Castle.

For the majority of Britain's planned galleries, government money and old-fashioned civic pride are essential. But at Compton Verney, where architects Stanton and Williams are converting the eighteenth century stately home into a modern art gallery, that other old-fashioned arts standby, the wealthy patron, is behind the project. Who is the millionaire concerned? None other than Peter Moores, heir to the Littlewoods pools fortune. The fortunes of fine art are, it seems, always a lottery after all.

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