After exciting a fair measure of controversy when it came to Hastings, the Jerwood Gallery is now set to become – relatively quietly, it seems – another new entity. Once a home for the Jerwood Collection, it will now be a unique and architecturally valuable seafront building owned by the Jerwood Foundation and occupied by the re-branded Hastings Contemporary (HC). 

PICTURE: Dave Young

The gallery building has been unselved from its original, some would say dubious, purpose of housing the Collection after which it was named. It could become anything. But, at least for a time, we are told that it’s going to stay as a gallery hosting contemporary art with an international appeal. 

The Jerwood Foundation’s official press release on the split from the gallery was opaque. Chairman of the Foundation Alan Grieve was rather more forthcoming, however, in an interview with the Telegraph: “We felt [the gallery] had been slow in fundraising from third parties,” he said. His suggestion was that it acquire an executive director with a background in business to work with existing director Liz Gilmore. He explained: “we didn’t want to take away from her, we wanted to strengthen her hand.”  But things still went sour. In 2017 she and gallery chairman David Pennock instructed an American law firm specialising in corporate disputes to accuse the Foundation of not keeping up its funding obligations, though it seems unlikely that there will ever be a day in court. 

The gallery has been receiving £300,000 each year from the Foundation. That support is set to stop at the end of this year. But it has also managed to get a £100,000 per year grant from the Arts Council, though it wanted £200,000. It has also received an anonymous donation of £250,000. So the new Hastings Contemporary might have funding enough already to cover 2019 and 2020, depending on what they want to do with the money. 

Financial issues, however, only explain how this argument became a full-on bust-up. The groundwork was laid in artistic differences, And there’s also a matter of cultural impact for us Hastingas to consider. 

All Mr Grieve has to say on the arts aspect is that “[the management has] not really embraced the Jerwood Collection from day one”. The gallery is clearly very keen on independence, but what is it actually trying to achieve with that freedom? A “museum-quality” collection of well-respected art, yeah yeah, we heard that bit. What else? Engagement with the wider arts community in Hastings perhaps?

Local artist Cheryl Bell wrote to me on Facebook: “The Jerwood has always had a stand-offish relationship with the local arts community and has chosen deliberately not to engage”. Many others  I’ve spoken with, including local gallery owner-operators, agree with her. She continues “This is in complete contrast to the other galleries on the East Sussex coastal arts trail, the DLWP and the Towner.” 

The press release proclaiming the advent of Hastings Contemporary, which you can find at jerwoodgallery.org, talks about “engaging with the town’s growing creative community”, though it talks a lot more about being a regional centre, big names and bringing in footfall. 

At least local artists are getting a vague mention. But a conversation with local media?  Not apparently their priority. A while ago we at
HIP asked to talk to Liz Gilmour about how things are going,
and were directed to a press release. Recently we asked to
talk specifically about the transformation into Hastings Contemporary, and received no reply. 

Sound artist, Jillienne Sellner, wrote to me on Facebook “I think a little more thought around curation [is required]. As well as more than just 2D art. Performance, installation, sound, video, digital etc. would be amazing. De La Warr does so many great experimental things. That is contemporary art. Not just showing established (mostly male) painters.” And it seems that the HC crew are aware of the multimedia point at least: “We want to encourage new ways of looking – contrasting historic works with today’s artists, showing works in a range of media…our programme will take advantage of the entire building”. 

However, compare that statement with the fact that five of the six artists mentioned as being featured in the new Hastings Contemporary programme are painters, and that “all these artists are credited with influencing generations of painters.” Maybe they’ll be supported by multimedia arts. Maybe those arts will be the work of locals, inspired by these great masters. Maybe not. We do know that the departure of the Jerwood Collection will give HC ample space (seven rooms, is it?) to host.

There’s a final point beyond arts direction and finances. Hastings Borough Council (HBC) originally donated the space to assist with a general programme of ‘cultural regeneration’ that would coincide with events and long-term trends like Brighton University coming to town. Now Brighton have abandoned us, and the Jerwood too. Maybe Hastings culture just can’t be ‘regenerated’? Or maybe we’re going about it the wrong way. Trickle-down economics has been exposed as nonsense. Why should we think that trickle-down culture would work any better? 

I wonder what effect the gallery has had on the town in the last seven years. HC’s proclamation claims that “the gallery has built an acclaimed exhibition programme and has been a cornerstone of the cultural renaissance of Hastings, welcoming over 300,000 visitors.” What about the 90,000-plus population of Hastings? What’s the end game for those of us who aren’t painters? Is the gallery, indeed the town’s beautiful and varied arts scene in general, helping to encourage the displacement of philistine locals by relatively wealthy and artistically talented DFLs? Probably. HBC certainly seems keen on the idea. Their plans for housing around Bohemia Road read like a manifesto for the DFL party.

But no-one in power seems overly bothered by this. And, as a recent DFL myself, I don’t know how much I can complain. I might not want portions of the Hastings population priced out of the seafront, town centre, and fancy, shiny arts quarters, but I’m participating in that displacement process just by being here. It seems there’s an issue of values and principles that’s not really being addressed. 

I have seen some efforts to include the Hastings community at the Jerwood. They’ve hosted life drawing classes for dementia sufferers, and networking events for local creatives. I’ve also walked into the gallery space to find a folkish band playing to an enraptured audience – variety is not beyond them. The question is whether the change of branding to Hastings Contemporary marks a change in directorial attitude. Will Liz Gilmore and her team take the opportunity to improve, financially and artistically, or will they keep on a keener course for the icebergs three years down the line when the lease comes up? 


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