Wolverhampton, a small city northwest of Birmingham, doesn’t offer much in the way of tourist attractions. Formerly a wealthy mining center in the heart of the West Midlands region of central England, it’s known today for its big Hindu and Sikh populations, its aerospace industry and a clutch of red-brick Victorian and Tudor-style buildings, relics of its heyday in the 19th century. In short, it’s an unlikely place to build a contemporary art space, but that’s just why it suits Frank Cohen. Cohen, 64, is one of England’s top collectors, with 2,000 works ranging from British art of the Fifties to contemporary Chinese painting. He opened his first exhibition space, Initial Access, at an industrial park near Wolverhampton earlier this year. Neighbors include a limousine service, a bus maintenance center and a carpet warehouse.
Cohen’s gallery is composed of two prefab sheds, much like the ones that used to house his home-improvement stores. After starting his career selling wallpaper from market stalls, Cohen went on to make millions with a Home Depot–like chain in the Midlands and in the north of England. Despite the far-flung, glamour-deprived location, he’s confident that art lovers will eventually make the trip to Initial Access, where admission is free and much of the work has never been seen in the UK. “You look at cities like Manchester or Leeds or Birmingham—they have museums but no art galleries and no dealers,” says the dapper Cohen, a former Turner Prize judge and a force behind the new Manchester Arts Festival, where Matthew Barney, Doug Aitken and Trisha Donnelly recently staged a live-performance show. “What I want to do is bring contemporary art to the Midlands, bring the big league to this part of the world.”