A review article written by Emma Sumner

Knowsley Council have made a huge cultural investment as part of their regeneration plans for Kirkby.  Recently opening the £5m purpose built Kirkby Centre, the council has transformed the old tired and dated building in to a modern fit-for-purpose facility where all its key services will be housed.  Most importantly, the centre contains the lustrous new state-of-the-art Kirkby Gallery.  Proof that Knowsley council places culture at the heart of their community offer and are serious about encouraging wider audiences. 

The opportunity the gallery re-location provided has been fully embraced by both the council and its committed Leisure and Culture team.  Persistently keeping in mind their ambition to work with other organisations and display works from national collections, the team pushed to ensure the new space would meet current museums standards. As a result, the gallery is versatile with movable walls and plush display cases and comes fully equipped with an environmental monitoring system, hi-tech security features and a lighting rig that would be the envy of any museum or gallery.  

The gallery’s inaugural exhibition examines the varied artistic processes of Pakistani born, Manchester raised artist Halima Cassell, whose work blends her Asian roots with a fascination for African pattern and architectural geometry.  An artist whose work encompasses various media and techniques, this is the first time all the different elements of her practice have been on display together.  The space is heaving with Cassell’s intense and playful work, as she explains; “It was a real honour to be asked to be the first artist to exhibit in Kirkby’s new gallery.  The space is so wonderful and uplifting; not your typical dusty council gallery.  The people of Kirkby are very lucky and I believe every town should have one”.

Cassell’s multicultural heritage is prevalent in the character of her work, but central to the exhibition is a series of newly commissioned works in concrete which look at Kirkby New Town’s architectural heritage.  Cassell explains; “I wanted to do something special as part of my solo exhibition which would help me to connect with the local audience.   The people of Kirkby are familiar with concrete as a material but I wanted to provide new ways of looking at concrete by creating something beautiful with it, especially as it so often receives such negative reactions.”  As part of the exhibition’s legacy, some of Cassell’s concrete commissions will be accessioned into the council’s fine art collection.  

With no plan of invidulation support for this or most of the forthcoming programme, the fear the gallery will simply become a display space hovers menacingly.  Yet with a strong sense of community within the Kirkby Centre and all building staff fully briefed on the gallery’s programme, there is little fear of this actually happening.  In fact, with effective cross-promotion and staff buy in it’s likely to be a far more effective system to encourage new audiences into the gallery. 

A real tribute to the investment the council has put into its cultural offer, the Kirkby Gallery is a space the town can be extremely proud of.  Central to Kirkby’s redevelopment plans the gallery provides a cultural ‘tip bit’ and will no doubt be an investment that will encourage Kirkby’s residents to make bolder cultural choices.