Kirstie Hamilton, director of programmes at Sheffield Museums Trust, said a lot of work had been done to improve the art gallery on the top floor of the Central Library on Surrey Street.
“The gallery walls were an inch thick in paint from 90 years of painting them. The wall surfaces had started to ‘wiggle’, which is quite distracting to look at.”
The work had been a big undertaking in the lockdown, said Kirstie, because materials and equipment had to be taken up and down three floors by the stairs as the lift isn’t big enough.
“We’ve got more of the collections out on display now with one display being on the theme of landscape.
“Instead of being traditionally curated, the displays are asking people to think more broadly about who are the artists and what’s going on in the works.
“You’ll find work from a teacher in the 1950s in the same gallery as a Turner. It spans from the historic to contemporary in the new display in the landscape gallery.”
One exciting new addition is an exhibition from internationally-renowned artist Phlegm, who is based in Sheffield.
What is Phlegm’s new work?
Phlegm, who is well known for his street art around the city, attracted 12,000 visitors to his 2019 exhibition, Mausoleum of the Giants, which featured huge sculptures displayed in an old factory on Milton Street.
In contrast, Phlegm’s Pandemic Diary is a collection of 67 small pen and ink drawings and one engraving which have gone on public display for the first time.
The drawings take a humorous look at events that happened during lockdown, including toilet roll panic buying and wearing face masks.
Another new exhibition by artist Keith Piper, one of the founders of 1980s black movement the Blk Art Group, takes a fresh look at the gallery’s collection.
Kirstie said: “We invited him to curate something from the Sheffield collection with a really open brief. With his incredible knowledge about the whole of art history, he could have run anywhere with it.
"He'd never curated from a collection before. We were interested to see how he would do that. Because of Covid he wasn’t able to physically come and see lots of things, so we took a conversational approach to it.
"We were sending him pictures of things."
Keith Piper’s powerful anti-slavery and anti-racist work The Seven Rages of Man is shown alongside items from the city collection.
They include currency issued by the Royal Africa Company, which transported more people into slavery than any other British company in the history of the Atlantic slave trade, and T-shirts protesting South African apartheid in the 1980s.
Kirstie said some of the objects he chose had never been put on display before.
Artist with links to city’s industrial past
She added: "There are ideas of colonialism and empire and Thatcher in the 80s and racism that was becoming a much more social issue rather than something which was accepted.
"It's a gallery that's really, really interesting. Hopefully it will invite people to think differently and question what history means and what it does and doesn't record.
“What's missing is as important as what's there and who actually writes the history."
Another new exhibition features the work of sculptor Mark Firth, called Precision as a State of Mind. It is his first exhibition with Sheffield Museums.
Mark is the great, great grandson of Sheffield steel magnate and philanthropist Mark Firth, who helped to found the University of Sheffield.
The university building Firth Court on Western Bank is named after him.
Precision as a State of Mind includes 83 new and recent works, including Ten Cubes for Sheffield, a new series made exclusively for the exhibition.
The works on display, crafted in aluminium, showcase Mark Firth’s preoccupation with geometry and his exploration of the meeting point between art and engineering.
Kirstie said: “His work is shown on our beautiful flat walls! The work is so geometrically precise it would have looked really bad on those walls before.”
“A bridge between the Graves of now and the Graves of tomorrow”
The gallery is doing more work with young artists and creative practitioners, Kirstie said.
A-level students have been invited to work with items from the collection in schools.
“We managed to get them up to meet Keith Piper, meeting an artist of that calibre” Kirstie said.
“He could talk about working with the collection and what it said to him. Who knows what will come of it?
“The whole thing is for young people to understand their resource. It’s their collection. Hopefully it will open some eyes and be an inspiration for people. It has been a very busy time.”
Looking to the future, Kirstie said: “The building does need huge investment. What Covid has done is really delayed some of that.
“We felt we needed something that was going to build a bridge between the Graves of now and the Graves of tomorrow.
“It’s an amazing collection that looks as good as it can do. It needed a bit of funding and support and attention.
“It’s at a point of change. I’d really like to take this on a journey that will make people’s lives better and make a difference to their lives.”
How can you visit the Graves Gallery?
Kirstie said that the collection being housed on the third floor of a building that needs investment is a barrier to people enjoying it.
She added: “We need change in the short term. We’re doing the best we can to look after Sheffield’s collection and show it in a way it deserves to be shown.
“Every year we change 40 per cent and get more of the collections out. It’s not just the formal spaces - we’re really starting to think what a collection is.”
The renovation work was funded by the Ampersand Foundation, which has donated £455,000 over five years to help improve the gallery displays and people’s engagement with the collection.
Kirstie said it was the maximum the foundation’s rules allow it to donate to the gallery. “Every year we’ll be making some changes.
“The ambition behind that has come to a point of knowing exactly what’s going to happen with the Graves Gallery and its future. This is buying us some creative space.
“The Central Library and Graves building was an amazing gift - J G Graves said you can use that money only if you build a gallery and gave 1,000 works in his lifetime.”
She said that Graves believed that art could help raise people’s aspirations: “We need to grab hold of that again and how art could play that central role in Sheffield city centre.
“There aren't that many landmark buildings. The city really does need to have that cultural art at its heart.
“I want to see it as a home to Sheffield’s visual art collection. The people of Sheffield deserve that.”
Kirstie added: “It’s all about people’s lives. If you’re a teenager in Sheffield and you want to spend some time thinking about art, it’s not necessarily that easy.
“The city centre needs more reasons to go into it. Retail is changing.
“Sheffield needs that ambition and aspiration that the Graves could bring. We need to be confident and make the big decisions like J G Graves did in 1929 when the economy was crashing.
“He could see that making that big investment would help the city.”
For information on exhibitions at the Graves, go to www.museums-sheffield.org.uk/museums/graves-gallery/home