Merlin Betts discusses the new gallery’s place and plans

I went to a coffee and chat at the Jerwood last week for the locals: us, the Hastings Observer, the Council press team. The gallery management gave us a fine tour about the place, explaining who would be coming next after John Carter and the Collection, explaining how architecturally well-designed the space continues to be, and giving timescales for the full transition to Hastings Contemporary. It should be clear by the beginning of July, if you’re wondering. They might know enough about what they’re doing to make the gallery a success, but there are a few queries worth raising on principle if for nothing else. 

Jerwood no more?

Firstly, Arts Council England funding objectives. Simon Mellor (deputy chief executive for arts and culture) recently said “Relevance is becoming the new litmus test. It will no longer be enough to produce high-quality work. You will need to be able to demonstrate that you are also facing all of your stakeholders and communities in ways that they value.” Liz Gilmore and the team mentioned this change in focus, and believe that the continued work of their Learning and Participation section should be enough to meet Arts Council requirements. The section is a good long-term collection of projects, boasting involvement with all schools in Hastings and St Leonards, and numerous other points of contact with local community groups.

Mellor continued however: “There is an entrenched imbalance in engagement with publicly funded culture…Less than 50% of this country engage with publicly funded libraries, museums or arts organisations on a regular basis, by which I mean more than twice a year. If that continues to be the case in 2030, how easy do you think it will be to make the case for public funding of the arts?”

The Arts Council and Mellor are right to be concerned. I struggle to see how a gallery full of high-quality but ultimately highbrow artwork could be said to substantially engage a majority of Hastings’ community. But maybe this isn’t important for the Hastings Contemporary’s long-term future. It seems to be good at making friends with artists and collectors, and we must bear in mind that its upcoming operations are in part privately funded, to the tune of £250,000 from one anonymous donor. 

Which leads us on to my second point of principle, if you like: the nebulous concept of cultural regeneration. Hastings Contemporary does some excellent outreach work as part of, for example, their Young Artists programme (funded by the Hastings Opportunity Area) that works to develop creative skills in kids aged 10-11. Their Pearls of the Sea project engaging schoolchildren and teachers is perhaps an even better example. No doubt children and young adults – everyone really – should feel enabled to follow some kind of creative pursuit. It’s particularly important for children in a school system that seems to be rejecting all learning which doesn’t focus on English and Maths outcomes. However, do such programmes and such a gallery represent cultural regeneration or a flourishing cultural cul-de-sac? Their Learning and Participation projects are impressive, but ultimately have to hit a ceiling.

You might say that the arts generally, while apparently vital to our society, are just a stomping ground for wealthy middle- and upper-class patrons who want to pretend that they have meaning in their petty little lives, otherwise dominated by the generation of excess profits. This is possibly why you’ll hear about “creatives” as much as “artists” and “the creative industry” more than “the arts”. There’s a recognition, and a desire at least to rebrand if not substantially alter how these things are done. What we ultimately want is more art made for and by (and funded by) the common folk. Working out how to get there will require more words than we have here. 

Hastings Contemporary is a decent one in a bad bunch of institutions that are proscribed from mass engagement by their very nature as institutions. And so I’m not sure it should be thought of as leading the cultural regeneration. Some amazing things are going on in Hastings with the arts, but that doesn’t mean most of the Borough cares. Do they need to be able to care? I say yes. What do we do about it? Well, stay tuned and hope HIP finds out. 

Ian Roberts, one of the PR team at Hastings Contemporary said: “it’s not new, it’s a renaissance”, which probably reflects the gallery’s new self relatively well. A rebrand, a freer hand when choosing shows and choosing how to use space. We can look forward to finding work in the courtyard and corridors, and more ambitious artistic takeovers of the place’s intriguing architecture generally. But it’s still an international gallery, still dependent on and trading in a measure of high wealth, and the windows are still too small to let the rest of us peer in.  

You can find the full programme of new art and artists here, where I’ll either upload the Hastings Contemporary press release or give a no-politics analysis of upcoming shows. You might also be interested in looking at www.jerwoodgallery.org/about/jerwood-gallery-in-the-community


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