By Gareth Stevens 

It is often said that necessity is the mother of invention. Whilst lockdown has had a catastrophic effect on art exhibition schedules, and led to all galleries being closed; as restrictions have eased and public spaces have reopened, I began to wonder about what good, if any, had come out of the pandemic for the visual arts in the area. I have heard first-hand from artists who, whilst compromised financially by lockdown, found the period of retreat a welcome opportunity for unfettered exploration and a chance to double down on developing basic skills. Some have said that their practice moved on at a pace during this period of enforced solitude. What then was the effect on those institutions that exhibit work? Was there a similar jump to think radically differently and to reappraise their core mission? 

To find out, I first spoke to Stewart Drew Director & CEO at the De La Warr Pavilion. Initially, it was the Your Art in our Windows show at DLWP that was the catalyst for me to write this piece. Despite being closed, the team invited the public to submit artwork which was then exhibited along the extensive glazed south-facing facade of the building. To me, this was a simple yet creative idea. An invention driven purely by lockdown necessity. 

Rethinking Fundamentals

Stewart was extremely generous with his time. He is a genuine conversationalist and I was struck by his authenticity and insight. Keen to express gratitude for what he described as significant financial support received from Arts Council England (ACE), Rother District Council (RDC), the DCMS/ACE Culture Recovery Fund and The National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF), Stewart also took time to describe fundamental shifts that lockdown restrictions had had on him and his team.

He says that the pandemic was a time to revisit the fundamental reason for the De La Warr Pavilion’s existence. He tells me that the building was funded by a loan from the Ministry of Health in the 1930s. Designed by refugee architects who were fleeing Nazism, its founding principle was that of promoting health and well-being through intelligently designed buildings that hosted various forms of art and culture. 

“For us the pandemic has been a chance to revisit and dig down into the reason the DLWP is here in the first place. My team found themselves, more than ever, having to operate a building that was intended to respond to just such conditions.” He explained that lockdown “allowed us to think – well everything is now off-limits – we can’t do what we usually do anymore and so let’s be adaptive in the way we deliver our programmes.”

Beyond the Obvious

Over the last few years, I have been consistently impressed by the diversity embodied by the Pavilion’s exhibition schedule. This first struck me when I saw the incredible show of the work of Hayv Kahraman in 2019. A cursory glance at the upcoming programme for 2022 shows is evidence that the DLWP continue to strive to go beyond the obvious and to break from orthodoxy. So, I was surprised when Stewart discussed how, in lockdown, his team had redoubled their focus on diversity. He explained to me that committing to this issue is essential in these times when movements such as Black Lives Matter are so active. During lockdown it became increasingly clear to him that with Bexhill undergoing a shift in social and economic circumstances, a continued emphasis on inclusion and diversity should be an ongoing focus. “Having diversity and inclusion at the forefront breeds a more pronounced sense of community and gives a deeper meaning to the process of regeneration.”

Hastings Contemporary faced similar tribulations during lockdown. I spoke with Suzy Trevethan, Audience Development Manager and Leah Cross, Head of Partnerships and Engagement. Again, I was impressed with their enthusiasm for turning pandemic plight into a set of positive ideas.

During the first lockdown in 2020 the gallery made international news when it started using a telepresence robot to run virtual tours. Passengers on the tours were able to join a member of gallery staff to see The Age of Turmoil and Anne Ryan’s Garden of Earthly Delites as well as Sir Quentin Blake’s mural The Taxi Driver. This programme continued throughout 2021.

Virtual Visits

Suzy explains that whilst initially the idea was predominantly about maintaining some kind of sense of the gallery being open and accessible, the robot tours quickly showed their inherent value beyond an attempt to adapt to lockdown. The robot tours began to attract attention from people around the world and increased the gallery’s global reach in ways they could not have imagined. “One particular tour I remember included a mother and daughter who attended the virtual event whilst being apart during the restrictions. It was so touching to realise that by ‘visiting’ Hastings Contemporary ‘together’ they shared an experience that went beyond a daily phone call.”

Another feature of the robot tours, when compared to a static online exhibition, is the level of interaction available. Guests could request that the robot move in on details or artworks or take time to look out of the window onto The Stade. I know from my own experience in lockdown, that attending online conferences, discussions and interactive events such as this, was a welcome escape during a time of intense isolation.

It was so touching to realise that by ‘visiting’ the Hastings Contemporary ‘together’ they shared an experience that went beyond a daily phone call

“Robot tours have continued since the recession of lockdown restrictions, in fact, we have a new and better robot now that can accommodate more guests,” Leah tells me. “Whilst the world is opening up again, there are still a lot of people with disabilities who remain vulnerable and are not comfortable visiting public spaces that may be busy”. More than that, school visits continue to be in decline mainly due to staffing issues and so the robot tours remain a valuable educational resource for teachers at this time.

“Covid has forced us to adapt and ask ourselves how we can reach out to our audience in different and meaningful ways. We have learnt some very valuable lessons,” Leah explains. Another unintended consequence of covid coping strategies has been that Hastings Contemporary members who don’t live in or around Hastings have experienced added value by virtue of the expanded set of virtual experiences available.

Hybrid Possibilities

Hastings Contemporary also ramped up the frequency of Zoom discussions, artists’ studio tours and began to realise there were wider issues at play. Looking forward, both Leah and Suzy agreed that the gallery will develop its approach to a more blended programme – a hybrid offer of online and ‘real’ experiences of the visual arts. “The pandemic has really made us more flexible and open minded about the future of the gallery’s online presence. You never know how much you value something until it’s gone,” says Suzy. “Our recent membership survey showed us that everyone values cultural interaction and experience.” 

2022 marks 10 years since the gallery building was opened and there is definitely an air of positivity about the upcoming life of Hastings Contemporary. The gift of the building by the Jerwood Foundation should help it go from strength to strength.

In a forthcoming piece, I will be focussing on smaller scale, more agile, arts organisations that have a ‘for us, by us’ approach, which are not bound by one building or location.

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