Pablo Bronstein, “Four Alternate Designs for a Lighthouse in the Style of Nicholas Hawksmoor,” 2014. Ink and watercolour on paper. Courtesy Herald St

 

Mark Sheerin looks at the manifold ways in which the South East region funded a daring network of new-build hubs for art and at the ways in which they are planning to sustain their efforts. He asks whether the nickname ‘string of pearls’ is a happy piece of shared branding or a millstone around their necks. And finally, looks at some of the benefits which the millions of pounds flowing into Kent and Sussex may have had.

 

Great art can sometimes fly in the face of reason and the same can be said of great art institutions. The South East did not escape the global crash of 2007-2008 and it has not been exempt from the subsequent austerity. But it has ploughed ahead with a suite of new galleries and, crazy as that may seem, it might yet prove to have been far sighted and just the thing to get ailing seaside towns back on their feet.

 

Strange to think that in 1962, Eastbourne was home to what The Observer newspaper described as “the most go-ahead gallery municipal gallery of its size in Britain”. By the 1990s that size had become an issue and some premises larger than their Georgian manor house were sought. Now any time-travelling journalists from the 20th century would be wowed by the 1,250 square metres of space now available in a white cube gallery in a central location. £8.58m was raised for the modernist building by Rick Mather.

 

Such statement architecture was funded by Eastbourne Borough Council, Arts Council England, the South East Development Agency, the Heritage Lottery Fund, and The New Towner Trust. It proves that, when it comes to sourcing finance for art projects, nets must be cast as wide as possible. Now those backers can see they’ve got their money’s worth as Towner continues to engage with locals.

 

 

Towner Gallery, Eastbourne

 

“Community access is the key of everything we do,” Executive Director Emma Morris tells me. “We make our collection accessible to our visitors. It’s free admission to all the exhibitions and we run an award-winning education and participation programme as well.” Free art and art-based activities are surely just the ticket in these straitened times when most leisure activities are rising in cost.

 

But Morris also tells me it might be time to retire the term ‘string of pearls’: “I think now we’re in a totally different climate, aren’t we, from that boom period of lottery investment.” In other words, local authorities and the Arts Council, Towner’s two foremost ongoing backers, have both been cut back. This gallery’s response has been to apply for charity status, which should unlock support from a new range of trusts and foundations.

 

Trustee chairperson David Dimbleby should have plenty of pull, allowing Towner to continue the work it does best. Morris says that funders like buoyant organisations who are still doing “strong work in terms of learning and participation.” She says that “confidence” is what appeals to funders, as well as the philanthropists we hear so much about.

 

 

Chair of trustees Towner, David Dimbleby

 

Around the coast in Folkestone, confidence is high as the town gears up for the Triennial (30 August-2 September 2014). Philanthropy is also in evidence. This is the third year that the East Kent festival of public art will have been funded to the tune of £1.5 million from the Roger De Haan Charitable Trust. The body was set up by the former Chairman of Saga Holidays and his father, Sidney, the founder.

 

 

Pablo Bronstein, “Four Alternate Designs for a Lighthouse in the Style of Nicholas Hawksmoor,” 2014. Ink and watercolour on paper. Courtesy Herald St

 

That money reaches the Triennial via organisers Creative Foundation, who work wonders all year round in the former port. 300 jobs have been created in the town’s Creative Quarter; performance space Quarterhouse has been built; and a book festival set up as if the visual arts were not enough. Development Manager Liz Duckworth tells me that each Triennial costs £2.2 million and it is her job to find the balance.

 

In 2011 she raised just under £500k from Arts Council England (“incredibly supportive”) and the local authority (“very supportive”), while most of the rest came from grant making trusts and foundations. Given the profile of the event, it is no surprise that, also, one or two galleries gave small amounts of sponsorship. The town is building up a world-class year round collection of public art.

 

 

The refurbished Cube in Folkestone

 

Duckworth is also dubious about the town’s relation to the string of pearls. In the past she has found a pattern emerge from unsuccessful funding bids. The region can be as competitive as it cooperative, and it can be difficult for neighbouring galleries to attract money from a limited number of sources. Funders, it seems, aren’t convinced by the romance of a happily co-existing regional infrastructure.

 

So let’s look at Turner Contemporary, which has done so much for Margate. It was built by a home-grown UK architect (David Chipperfield), it offers 750m2 of exhibition space and it is set at the end of a sandy beach in an ageing and deprived former resort where unemployment levels are double the rate for the South East as a whole. The skies over Thanet may be “the loveliest in all Europe”, as advertised by painter JMW Turner, but look around the seafront and this is still a downbeat place.

 

 

Turner Contemporary in situ, photo Nick Gutteridge

 

Nevertheless, at a closer inspection, contemporary art is proving a catalyst for change in this once-again fashionable seaside destination. In its first 18 months, the gallery brought 750,000 visitors to town. New shops and cafes cater for them. Former fisherman’s huts have become studios. Turner is not the only one-time local to enjoy a show here; they have also hosted Tracey Emin. Who else?

 

All of this has come at a price. Much like Towner, the maritime town has cast nets wide and hauled in £17.4 million from a variety of sources: Kent County Council; Arts Council England, the South East Development Agency for the lion’s share. Individuals, trusts, foundations accounted for the relatively small sum of £2.9 million, which is sobering considering the current climate.

 

But should the reader be in a position to help the gallery with its good works, they offer a very wide range of benefits, from high profile credits and event invitations to hospitality for corporate backers. If you are really generous, Turner will even name part of their gallery after you. These times call for hard work, not hand outs, as we are so often told; and so the gallery is looking to raise £1 million and to double their money with an initiative from the DCMS called Catalyst.

 

 

Installation view of ‘Turner and Constable: Sketching from Nature. Works from the Tate Collection’, 2013, Turner Contemporary Photo: Manu Palomeque

 

Meanwhile not too much regeneration is needed in the bohemian village in East Sussex where the most recent pearl has arguably been threaded onto the regional network. Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft caters for fans of typography, letterpress and the applied arts. This was once the home to Eric Gill who, given revelations in Fiona McCarthy’s 1989 biography, is not all you might hope your brand ambassador to be.

 

It didn’t put off the Heritage Lottery Fund, who gave £1.4million. Nor did it dissuade the John Paul Getty Foundation, to whom the rural setting was a major draw. Museum Director Hilary Williams also tells me they approached “the usual grants and foundations”. And so the sum of £2.3 million was reached for an architectural overhaul in keeping with the gallery’s bucolic surrounds.

 

 

Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft

 

Opening in September last year, the Museum has done well with visitor numbers. But it needs to, as it depends on gate money, group visits, and sales in the gift shop and café. Like Towner is soon to be, the Museum is a charity. Perhaps they have been comparing notes. “We all meet regularly as part of the East Sussex Cultural Strategy Group,” says Williams with enthusiasm. But she does admit that, as in all walks of life, the economic climate breeds competition, rather than cooperation . “All the funding groups out there are trying to get the same pots of money as we were and also, alongside that, all of the grants and foundations who make their money from investments, etc., are making less money.”

 

Other newly-bejewelled South East galleries include a restoration at De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea (£8 millon in 2005), a revamp at Pallant House in Chichester (£8.6 million in 2006), and a permanent home for a private collection at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings (£4 million in 2012). In at least one of these cases, the projects have had to battle with local opposition.

 

Pearls need time, often grit, and the right conditions to develop and, despite today’s choppy financial waters, when the outlook is brighter they are bound to shine.

 

Further Reading:

The debate surrounding the London bias of UK arts funding is getting some theoretical economic momentum behind it. The BBC’s economist Evan Davis pulled out some of the bigger forces at play in his recent BBC2 documentary, Mind the Gap. Guess what: there’s imbalance everywhere. Read this article posted in Guardian Online, March 17 2014, Agglomerated arts: closing the funding gap between London and the rest.

 

Previous feature New Directions on Frame and Reference about South East gallery directors discussing future plans.

 

LATEST NEWS: Folkestone Triennial 30 August – 2 November 2014
Yesterday (11 March 2014) the Creative Foundation announced details of the artists commissioned for the third edition of the Folkestone Triennial. Internationally-recognised artists have been commissioned to create a collection of new artworks to be exhibited in Folkestone’s public spaces under the title Lookout.

 

The artists are: Jyll Bradley; Pablo Bronstein; Strange Cargo; Diane Dever and Jonathan Wright; Tim Etchells; Andy Goldsworthy; Ian Hamilton Finlay; John Harle and Tom Pickard; Emma Hart; Alex Hartley; Will Kwan; Gabriel Lester; Amina Menia; muf Architecture/Art; Yoko Ono; Marjetica Potrč and Ooze Architects; rootoftwo; Sarah Staton; Something & Son.