“If you build it they will come.” This motto from the film Field of Dreams must have special resonance for the Tate St Ives, which celebrates its fifth birthday this month. The museum, taking as its remit British Modernism and contemporary art in the Cornish context, deserves to party. Who would have thought five years ago that building an avant-garde museum devoted to Modern art in a Cornish fishing village a five-hour train journey from London would not only draw crowds, but would also increase much-needed commercial revenue in this far-flung corner of the country?
Yet since opening, attendances have almost trebled expectations (185,000 per year compared with an estimate of 65,000-70,000) and a 1994-95 study by the Cornish Tourist board attributed £16.5 million of additional spending in Cornwall directly to the gallery. Before the Tate, St Ives attracted surfers and summer seaside holiday-makers; the surfers remain but now international visitors also come year-round to see the gallery and the town which served as midwife to British Modernism in the form of Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Christopher Wood, Naum Gabo, Bernard Leach, Wilhemina Barnes-Graham, Peter Lanyon and Patrick Heron, to name a few of the artists who came here between the 1930s and 50s.
What is extraordinary about their art is its strong attachment to what Hepworth famously called the “pagan landscape” of West Cornwall. The museum succeeds because it translates this sense of place into architectural terms so that art and landscape and above all the extraordinary quality of light here play off each other in complementary ways. The wild landscape lays bare the essentials of form, colour and light that are reflected in an abstract way in the works on display. St Ives art—which can often appear austere, abstract—even cerebral, looks better here than anywhere else.
The fifth anniversary exhibitions (until 1 November) carry out the museum’s mission. Nonagenarian artist John Wells came here in the 1930s to work as a doctor and to learn from Ben Nicholson and his fellow artists; he has been working here ever since. His early experiments with abstraction and landscape are still exciting but sadly his later work loses some of the energy. John Beard, the Tate St Ives’s current artist-in-residence is a wonderful discovery. The fifty-something British artist who splits his time between Australia and Portugal, is fascinated by the convergence of land and sea. For his “After Adraga” project now at the gallery, he spent years painting the westernmost piece of land in Europe—the Rock of Adraga, off the coast of Portugal—in every possible media, from watercolour to pigment on paper—to remarkable effect. Coming to St Ives, not far from Land’s End, was the logical next step.