The Jerwood Gallery sits proudly on Hastings seafront amongst the fishing and net huts. The building itself, designed by ‘HAT projects’, won a prestigious RIBA award for it’s architecture, and although the idea of the Jerwood Gallery was met by some negativity, it is undoubtedly a landmark that draws in tourism to both the building, and the fine, contemporary art that sits within it. Liz Gilmore, the director of the Jerwood Gallery kindly sat with Jack Booth and me to answer some of our questions (besides giving us a private tour of the Gallery and the exhibition they were currently installing):
Have you been the director since the Jerwood since it opened in 2012?
Yes, I oversaw the build initially and then I’ve been running the gallery. We approach our third birthday this March, It’s been a really important journey for Hastings.
When you did open, you had quite a lot of opposition from some Hastings locals, did the Jerwood gallery ever have any second thoughts as to whether they were doing the right thing because of this?
No. I mean coming from the role I was previously in before I took directorship, (which was head of visual arts for the Arts Council for the south east), and in that capacity I’d overseen the build…..from Arts Council’s perspective with the whole chain of coastal galleries with the redevelopment of the De La Warr, and right through to Southampton and Milton Keynes, Modern Art Oxford, I’d seen those sort of rise in various ways.
I think the thing that it taught me is that there are always going to be people who may not like the idea of change, and I think there were a few, with quite loud voices that had their opinion against it but none that we were so overwhelmed by to ever have doubt that there would be a gallery here, if anything quite the reverse.
Do you think many of the opposing locals have had a change of heart, and do you think they will eventually?
I think we’ll never please everybody and I think it’s kind of too hard to gauge. Absolutely there are many people who maybe thought that galleries weren’t for them, and now have a different perspective, and we witness that almost weekly.
It can also depend on the kind of exhibition we put on, we deliberately vary them for people, so Jake and Dinos Chapman has just closed, the bad boys of the art world. I thought the quite dark and provocative subjects would attract and repel people probably an equal amount. Even those that I thought might find it quite risqué or offensive actually felt compelled to come to the gallery and see it.
So I think it does depend on what we show for people to come in and experience it. I suppose its like choosing something off a menu that you’ve not had before, and you don’t know if you’re going to like it. It’s all about appetite building and that isn’t something that just changes overnight.
You offer a reduced rate for local residents – was this always the intention or was this a peace offering for locals that were against the Jerwood?
We have an entrance fee because without that we wouldn’t be able to afford to exist. We are heavily subsidised by the Jerwood Foundation, and we are always seeking fundraising opportunities. Yes to an extent, I wouldn’t call it a peace offering but more of an incentive to visit, because we want people to use this and it be part of their lifeblood, and the way to do that is to have an incentive to come back again and again. A reduced entrance fee is one way.
The other way which has really taken off, we launched membership over a year ago, I think in the time we’ve had it, over 1800 people have been members of the gallery, and that means they can come throughout the year, as many times as they like.
I think that reflects that people wanted a resource here that they can use a lot of the time and most of the memberships have been for local people. So ironically its not the entrance fee that is perhaps the barrier, it’s the fact that they get to just come and go, and I think having membership gave this.
How, if at all, would you like locals to get involved with the gallery?
By visiting us regularly, using the café where you get an amazing view of Hastings, but come and see the art of course. Another big way is by volunteering. We are ever growing and people come and go. They might be students, or retired and then they find they don’t have the time they thought they had, but we’re really really keen to extend our volunteering opportunities, so that includes invigilation, and in return they can build up really important work experience and different skills which I hope will then furnish and grow in Hastings and beyond.
What is your favourite local art space other than the Jerwood?
I think its so dynamic here, there are so many artists. It’s really hard to pick, I mean the Hastings Art Forum has 500 members, you see the gallery shows that they have and there are artists in there who really captivate me.
Norman Road and all of the galleries along that area for example, it’s the collective whole and that vibrancy that makes it very difficult to say, “I like this space the most”, but I like the ambition of the Russian gallery that’s on there, then you cross the road and you see a really small commercial gallery. There are also some really interesting shows that come up there, but it’s the fact that it’s really peppered with artistic people, and I think that epicentre of Norman Road, artists working there, studio groups, people working in their studios from home, there’s a constant movement of people.
Do you think that many people visit Hastings because of the Jerwood gallery?
We know that’s the case, when we do our surveys, and it varies depending on the exhibition. Sometimes 60% of the people who are not from Hastings visit Hastings specifically for the gallery. So I think we know for sure that we’re having a catalytic effect on tourism.
Have you had one exhibition here that has attracted a lot more out-of-towners than locals?
That does happen. The seasonality of Hastings, being a coastal resort in the winter is vastly different than the summer, so the summer inevitably attracts more people from out of town.
Obviously we don’t stop every visitor that walks through the door, but surveys do show that a lot of our visitors come from London and elsewhere. Definitely we can influence who comes by the exhibitions we have.
We also know that if you put things on in the summer, like our Quentin Blake exhibition, and we have another one planned this summer for families, that will encourage people from out of town, people just out of Hastings, whether its Rye, Battle or Kent. We also attracted more than usual visitors here in the winter by showing Jake and Dinos Chapman.
It was reported that visitor numbers were expected to be between 100,000 and 150, 000, were these realised?
Our visitor numbers are not at that level, but I think that figure was benchmarked not by us, but with the Fisherman’s Museum next door which is a free venue, so I’m not sure that figure was particularly helpful as a measure of what our visitor numbers would be, but I have to say we didn’t model up our plan on that at all. I think it was cited perhaps as an example by the council of relevant bodies, who understandably would think what are the neighbouring venues and their visitor numbers? Probably the best comparison would be Pallant House in Chichester, we have around the same number, and that comes in at around 40,000 visitors a year, on top of that they do a school program, so overall theirs is probably around 60,000 visitors a year.
So I would say that ours are pretty much in line with Pallant House. On a free Tuesday obviously we see higher figures, but that’s why we do it, so those that see the admission as a barrier, can come and visit.
What has been your most successful exhibition to date in terms of visitors?
Without a doubt it was Jake and Dinos Chapman. It was the most spectacular success for us in terms of ironically being the most accessible show, I say ironically because of its subject matter, but at the same time pulling visitors from a national reach, because they’re superstars, they’re in the press, the TV, radio, the broadsheet reviews, that helped put Hastings on the map in a way. It doesn’t mean we’re necessarily superstar chasing, we want to promote careers of artists we believe in.
Did you approach the Chapman Brothers or was it the other way around, and was it because they were local boys?
Quite a bit of our artistic programme relates to local artists, so Chantal Joffe spent a lot of time in St Leonards, Rose Wylie in Kent down the road, Quentin Blake has a home just up the road, Gary Hume grew up and has family in Tenterden in Kent, Fiona Banner has a studio down the road, which she uses during the holidays, Martin Maloney too. There are so many artists that are associated with Hastings and we certainly consider that as part of what we do.
In terms of the Bad Boys themselves, it was kind of a mutual reference initially from Gary Hume. We knew that they wanted to exhibit here; we actually won the competition Museums at Night. We got an overwhelming majority of votes to have them here, I think because they grew up here, and when we met them and were entertained by them, I hope we entertained them, I think that’s when the idea for the show was conceived. Its been a slow process but actually incredibly quick in the gestation of the exhibition, and really from start to finish we had six months and they did a bespoke show for Hastings so I was thrilled because it’s unusual for artists of that stature.
The café in the Jerwood is run by Webbe’s over the road, did they approach you when they knew the Jerwood was going to be here or did you approach them?
Actually I approached Paul and Rebecca Webbe, who are well established in the area and have a wonderful reputation for food, I mean, Paul is a fantastic chef, who is creative and inventive. We did look around and bearing in mind this was 3 years ago, and there is a lot of change even in 3 years, but we have really good comments about peoples experience in the café. It was a different adventure for them.
What is one of your favourite buildings in the area?
Again, the architecture around here is stunning. I love all of Hastings and St Leonards, who doesn’t? There are astonishing houses in St Leonards and the fact that the whole town plan was designed at once is wonderful. St Mary in the Castle, it’s wonderful that it’s within spitting distance. In terms of architectural interventions, I love the funiculars that go up to the East and West Hill, they’re astonishing, I think I filled up with excitement when I saw them the first time I came to Hastings. They were completely regenerated and repaired and put in working order before the gallery opened, and they’re a real added spark.
What should a first time visitor to Hastings do?
Well they should come to the Jerwood, and after they’ve had their gallery tour and maybe lunch, our visitors often go wondering into the Old Town and go bargain hunting, which is something I always love doing. It’s still one of those places where you can buy pottery at a very affordable price, and have the joy of finding curious curio shops that are on High Street. They should go for a walk up in the country park. You can get a funicular up there and go for a wander, or go into St Leonards. Hastings has just secured half a million pounds to develop the whole of the seafront area between here and Bexhill, and I think the thing of the future is going to be you can get on your bike, go to the pier as that unveils itself, and then end up at the De La Warr Pavilion. It’s brilliant, just the vibrancy. Looking at the fishing beach, for me that defines Hastings. It’s wonderful to have that working fishing beach.
Where do you think does the best fish and chips?
That’s a tricky one. I think the thing about Hastings and I do genuinely say this to all our visitors, you can walk straight across the road and get brilliant fish and chips, you can go to Maggie’s which is famous for always being full. But actually, all of the men and women on here that sell their fish and chips, that’s the things that defines Hastings.
You can go into pretty much any fish and chip shop, and it’s brilliant. Really amazing quality, there really isn’t anything like it. Is it the freshness of the fish? Being by the market? So it’s really difficult to answer, I often go straight across the road if I feel like I need chips and the guys there are fabulous.
Do you make good use of the sea yourself?
Yes, I wouldn’t say that I’m a regular sea swimmer, but we do have a swimming club at the gallery, the staff you’ll often catch in the sea on a break time in the summer. Yes, I have gone into English waters and really enjoyed it, but it does have to be a sustainably hot week before I’ll probably venture in. I love looking at the sea though, I spent years living in Brighton and I think once you live on the periphery of life by the sea, you always stay there, it becomes part of you.
Finally, do you have a favourite piece from the Jerwood collection?
It varies depending on what we have on display. But there’s always one piece that I hold dear, which is by Michael Ayrton, Susannah and the Elders. It’s a biblical story of Susannah who was accused of adultery. It’s a painting of a very staccato tree, its utterly beautiful, exquisite. There are lots on show but that’s one that I always carry with me, I really love that painting and it surprises me every time.