From a school of art and free library, to a museum and art gallery housing world class art, fossils and glass.
A handsome and commodious structure
On Tuesday 3 July 1883 Earl Beauchamp, the Lord Lieutenant of Worcestershire laid the foundation stone for a new building on the corner of two streets - it was to house a large reading room, a library designed to hold 5,000 books and the art gallery, upstairs rooms were to be set aside for the use of Dudley School of Art.
The building work was carried out by Dudley builders, Webb and Round, and completed in one year at a cost of £5,300.
The Opening Ceremony
On 29th July 1884, the Hon. Mrs Claughton, wife of the Bishop Of St Albans and sister to the Earl of Dudley, officially opened the new building. The Countess of Dudley had originally agreed to officiate but as it turned out was unable to do so because of her brother-in-laws death. Bands played, speeches were delivered and a procession took place from Priory Hal by way of Castle Drive, the Market Place and Wolverhampton Street before arriving at the new building. The ceremony was carried out on a canopied dais on the corner of Priory Street where Mrs Claughton was presented with a solid gold key to unlock the doors.
The library was supported by the proceeds of a 1d rate and this sum allowed Charles F. Mackmain of Bilston to be appointed as librarian on a salary of £100 a year.
Readers chose their books from a printed catalogue, checked against an indicator board to make sure they were not already on loan and then asked the librarian to fetch them. Readers were not allowed to choose directly from the shelves. The library was open from 10am-1pm and again from 6pm-9pm; the reading room was open all day.
Mackmain resigned in 1888 and was succeeded by William Southall - thus began a dynasty of librarians which lasted until 1946 when the last of the Southall family retired. The library service was very popular with 50,000 books issued in 1889. Problems with overcrowding began to arise - eventually a grant of £7,500 was received and a new library building in St James' Road was opened in 1909.
Dudley School of Art was housed above the Free library. Enrolment in classes increased enormously with the move to these new premises. The school aimed to provide 'such training in ornamental art and mechanical science as may be required in productive industry'.
In the 1890's an Act which imposed additional duty on wines and spirits was passed which resulted in funds becoming available to local authorities. These funds popularly known as 'whisky money' were used in Dudley to help meet the costs of running the Art School on condition that free tuition was provided for selected pupils and that a certified art master be appointed.
In 1901, the Art School was transferred to the direct management of the Borough Council to be worked in conjunction with the Technical School. The school flourished. When the library moved over the road, the space was converted into a pottery room.
In 1946 it was recommended that the school should cease to be a separate establishment and should become part of the college. Classes carried on being held in the building until 1966.
When the Art Gallery opened in 1884, it was a single a gallery. Despite promises of donations, the gallery got off to a slow start. A year after it was opened Blocksidge's Almanack commented 'Although it is called an Art Gallery, there are not at present, any works of art deposited in it.'
It had been agreed that the Art Gallery would be open on Mondays and Saturdays from 11am-9pm free of charge to allow the working classes to benefit. There was a charge of 3d admission on Wednesdays and Fridays for the middle classes. This plan, funnily enough, did not work out. The free days were a success with 17,000 attending over 22 days but few people chose to pay for admission.
The first donation was a Florentine marble sculpture presented by E. Fisher Smith. In 1895 the Primitive Methodist was acquired and in 1907, arguably the most popular painting 'The Sale of Old Dobbin' was bought.
The Dudley Art Circle was founded in 1928 and began to stage its own annual exhibitions. In 1938 the annual total of visitors reached 18,888.
World War II brought a temporary closure.
The Art Gallery re-opened in 1946; it was open daily from 10am-8pm.
Also in 1946, Brangwyn's painting 'The Wine Press' was commissioned.
The 1950's saw a renewed interest in the arts, the importance of conserving heritage and planning for the future. In 1954 the council first asked the Art School to consider moving out to allow for the expansion of the galleries which now included a geological museum and other galleries devoted to local industry and history.
In January 1965 the new geological gallery was opened on the ground floor displaying the collection of fossils deposited by the former Dudley Geological Society.
Local government reorganisation in 1965/66 had widened responsibilities to include the museum in Brierley Hill which included a large and well-known collection of glass.
The Council was committed to developing an industrial museum and work began almost immediately on finding a suitable site and building up the collection. The Black Country Museum was established as an independent trust and opened to the public in 1979.
In 2016, the decision was made to close the existing Museum and Art Gallery and re-display some of the collection in modern, accessible and more suitable premises - close to the other visitor attractions in Dudley.
The glass collection was stored temporarily in Dudley - and caused quite a lot of controversary but it was moved to a newly created glass museum in Kingswinford, Broadfield House. Within a year it was awarded the title of best small museum in the national competition for new museums. Before it's closure, the Glass Museum had earned a world-leading reputation for its archives and unique pieces depicting the history of glassmaking.
In November 1981, the Brooke Robinson Collection was re-displayed in the gallery and opened to the public after a gap of 15 years.