Rod Webb talks to John Murray (Learning Manager) and Esther Mclaughlin, (Head of Development and Communications) about Hastings Contemporary gallery’s plans to bring art to the people. 

The Hastings Contemporary Website proclaims that: “Our Learning and Participation Programme works with learners from 0 to ninety-nine years old.” With the Jerwood making a new start as Hastings Contemporary, John Murray and Esther McLaughlin seem genuinely excited about building on the work they have already done with the community.

John explains their vision for younger people in the community as “guiding them to a different way of thinking and building confidence”. They have been running Baby Sense classes, for children from a couple of weeks old, toddlers with Little Adventurers as well as school workshops. 


Some programmes can be noisy and chaotic, but this isn’t a problem, John explained. The gallery doesn’t mind children running and shouting when not open to the general public. This isn’t always the experience for parents, however. “While children often have a natural affinity with art, this can be
lost as we grow up, being seen for the privileged few,” he says. “There are big walls to break down.” 

There has also been a lot of work with disadvantaged groups through organisations like the Start Hospices programme with Chestnut Tree House hospice as well as ‘Relaxed mornings’ for those with autism. They accept that much of this work has received little publicity – mainly because they were “just getting on with it”. Hastings Contemporary aims to change public perception.

Esther wanted to emphasise the work of volunteers who help run events at the gallery. Many have lived in Hastings for years and are trusted by parents from all walks of life. She said this was an important part of “breaking down walls”.

But the ambition is to do more outreach in the future.  They want to start taking art out to the community. “A lot of effort has been made with making in-house programmes and this is the next step with Hastings Contemporary,” John explained.

A recent innovation is a youth group called ‘Young Artists’, funded by Hastings Opportunity Area. Inspired by the gallery’s exhibitions programme, and working with an experienced Artist Educator, these young artists have developed art-based skills and created their own small-scale exhibitions. The sessions have also helped support their emotional health and well-being by giving them a positive creative outlet “to express themselves at a complex transitional time”. 

John accepts that it’s difficult to measure the importance of their work with young people but wanted to make clear that “a child’s environment is crucial to their development”.

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