New horizons - Museums Association

New horizons

Ten years ago there was an explosion of new and refurbished regional galleries in England. A decade on, how have these institutions adapted to harsher economic realities and changing priorities?
Caroline Parry
At the dawn of the era of austerity, before reality really began to bite, a wave of new and redeveloped regional art galleries opened. This cluster of capital projects saw the creation of galleries such as Nottingham Contemporary, the Jerwood Gallery (now Hastings Contemporary), the Turner Contemporary and the Hepworth Wakefield.
There were also redevelopments at Cornwall’s Newlyn Art Gallery, including the opening of its sister gallery, the Exchange, in Penzance, and new purpose-built homes for the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne and Colchester’s Firstsite. A few years later there was also a significant expansion and refurbishment of the Whitworth, in Manchester.

But as austerity began to take its toll, both the financial and social climate in the country changed dramatically. And with Brexit adding further uncertainty, galleries are faced with challenging socioeconomic realities.
The deep cuts to public funding and the reduction in money from other sources are the single biggest challenge to regional galleries. This is coming at the same time as the cultural sector is trying to address new agendas in areas such as social impact, environmental sustainability and digital technology.

The role of art

“There is a general squeeze on money,” says Alistair Hudson, the director of Manchester Art Gallery and the Whitworth art gallery. “There is a big job to do to change public understanding of the fundamental role that the arts can play in economics, business, politics and sciences, and the role of creativity.”

What this means in practice varies with the institution, its location and its funding. But the past decade has seen all regional art galleries forced to become more commercially minded, strategic and entrepreneurial. Inevitably it has revived the thorny issue of charging for entry. With many regional institutions based in areas struggling with unemployment, poverty and cuts to local services, adding a barrier to entry is not a decision taken lightly.

At Cornwall’s Newlyn Art Gallery and the Exchange, which are close to areas that have pockets of deep deprivation, the decision was taken to introduce a seasonal charge. For £3.30, visitors receive a weekly, multiple-entry pass for both venues. “We were keen to set the rate so it’s not too much of a barrier,” says James Green, the director of Newlyn Art Gallery and the Exchange. “Under-18s are free, members are free and any of our off-site work is free.

“It raises a little bit of income and helps us to recover more VAT and Gift Aid,” he continues. “Together, these things make a useful contribution to the gallery.”

While he admits that the commercial transaction has changed its relationship with its audience, Green believes there is something “quite healthy” about charging. “If we were charging £15 for every exhibition it would be more problematic,” Green says. “The price point is important, and there are other routes to accessing our programme for those who do see it as a barrier.”

Hastings Contemporary, which is now a partly publicly funded gallery after launching with private philanthropic funds (see box), charges a £9 entry fee. Director Liz Gilmore is clear that for many Hastings residents the charge is a barrier, but it is essential to raise money.

“We offer a free Tuesday every month, our learning and participation programme is free, and children are free. Even our paying visitors are subsidised,” she says. “We would get more visitors without it, but we need to be proactive with our income generation.”

Flexible spaces

At Nottingham Contemporary, entry is free, as is its public programme, which features more than 100 events a year. But it is also developing income-generating strands. These include its weekly cinema showing, the Screen, which puts on a range of independent and Hollywood titles. It also hires out space for weddings, conferences, meetings and events.

Site Gallery in Sheffield added a dedicated events space as part of its 18-month, £1.7m redevelopment, which was finished last year.

“We wanted to create a building with income generation built-in, but we were aware from other organisations of issues around hiring out gallery space, so we created separate areas,” says Judith Harry, the executive director of Site. “We also let out space to creative businesses.”

Hiring out space has also become a significant revenue stream for Cornwall’s Newlyn Art Gallery and the Exchange in the past three to four years. But Green says that it is not just about generating income. “It helps the gallery become useful to the local community,” he says. “It gives the building a different relevance to people beyond just being an art gallery.”

Margate’s Turner Contemporary is also seeking new revenue streams through event hire, catering and retail. Director Victoria Pomery says this vital income helps the gallery avoid an entrance fee.

“We are thinking all the time about different ways to make money,” Pomery says. “How do we raise more donations instead of charging for entry, as it is one reason people visit us in the first place.”

Philanthropy is one alternative, despite the challenging economic climate and general uncertainty about the future. Schemes for donating have evolved with patrons often giving smaller more regular amounts, instead of gifting large one-off sums. Generous individuals who support the arts remain a vital source of income.

“People are still keen to give money to the arts,” says Pomery. “And the tax incentives for doing it are good enough. But there is a lot of competition and it is harder to build a network of donors in a regional context. The same is true of sponsorship.”

It is an area where Nottingham Contemporary has had some success, developing a variety of levels and options for people to get involved.

“We are fortunate to have a dedicated group of benefactors who care passionately about what we do,” says Nottingham Contemporary’s director Sam Thorne.

The gallery has an Exhibition and Business Circle, offering donors a range of benefits depending on the contribution they make, while its Gallery Circle sees it raise an annual donation from a number of commercial galleries. In November the gallery will hold its second Gala Dinner, this time to coincide with its 10th anniversary. Guests can buy tables for 10 for around £2,000, and there will also be an auction.

“There are no other events like this in Nottingham, so it works well for us,” says Thorne. “In London, you do see it more.”

Cornwall’s Newlyn Art Gallery has also had success with a patron scheme. Gaining 33 members in its first year, it is heading into its second year with 100% retention. For £250 per year, patrons receive access to a range of benefits, including access to private views and opportunities to meet artists.

“It has worked better than we expected,” Green says. “They feel like a group of friends, albeit they are friends we didn’t know we had. We would be happy to open the door to other partnerships.”

Seeking to capitalise on this further, Newlyn Art Gallery has created a new fundraising board, which is separate to the governance board. This is looking at philanthropy, ways of increasing its patrons and other forms of income generation. Philanthropy is a real challenge for Sheffield’s Site Gallery, although it had some success raising money for its redevelopment because the outcome was both tangible and large scale. “We do have donors for whom we are hugely grateful,” Harry says. “But it is hard in Sheffield.”

The role of legislation

For Thorne at Nottingham Contemporary, legislation is important to help galleries attract more donations, whether that is from private individuals or businesses. “The exhibitions tax relief has been incredibly significant for us,” Thorne says. “We would love to see more legislation like this – tax breaks and initiatives that help to foster a more philanthropic atmosphere.”

Local collaborations are increasingly vital to regional galleries. At Nottingham, a unique three-way partnership with Nottingham Trent University and the University of Nottingham provides invaluable funding that supports the public programme but goes beyond that into research and resources.

These partnerships are often less directly about funding, however, and more about how the gallery builds relevance within its local community. At Turner Contemporary, it means working with local schools, Margate Pride and the town’s Book Festival, among many others.

Newlyn’s history is rooted in artists engaging with the local community, and everything the art gallery does relates to this – whether that is developing off-site projects to bring its exhibitions to life out in the community, using its events spaces, or raising sponsorship from local businesses.
“We think about how everything relates to our core mission –relevance, philanthropy, the commercial work, it is all connected,” Green says. “All these things are helpful to make us sustainable, but it all comes back to helping our local community.”

The scope of ambition among regional art galleries to help tackle social issues is vast, with work around healthcare, loneliness, immigration and arts education. While this piles on the pressure in an already squeezed sector, Hudson believes this is how galleries can be relevant locally, nationally and internationally.

“We must collaborate with healthcare, housing and infrastructure,” he says. “It is about doing things beyond art, but applying artistic competence to the world. Working in this way will encourage patronage, partnerships and sponsorships. If we get involved in housing, for example, it is part of the economic model. These are not separate things.”

Doing these things will ensure regional galleries remain relevant and survive in the long-term. “Being international used to mean showing international-style contemporary art,” Hudson says. “But now the way to be relevant internationally is to prove your relevance locally. It is about developing a holistic model where all these areas work together, and that contributes to the wider social good.”

Caroline Parry is a freelance journalist.

Liz Gilmore and Victoria Pomery will be speaking at the Museums Association Conference & Exhibition in Brighton (3-5 October) in a session about the future of regional art galleries. They will be joined by Joe Hill, the director of the Towner Gallery and Sally Shaw, the director of Firstsite

The new wave of regional galleries
The Whitworth

Manchester’s Whitworth, which was founded in 1889, incorporates a park as well as an art gallery. In 2015 it underwent a £15m development that transformed the museum and doubled its size.

Site Gallery

The Site Gallery in Sheffield specialises in moving image, new media and performance. In 2018 the gallery reopened after a building programme that trebled the scale of its public area.

The Towner

The Towner, above, is a contemporary art gallery in Eastbourne. Originally opened in 1923 at a site in the Old Town, it is now housed in a purpose-built £8.6m gallery that opened in 2009.

The Hepworth Wakefield

Located in the heart of Yorkshire, the Hepworth Wakefield opened in 2011. It is named after the artist Barbara Hepworth and has dedicated galleries exploring her art and working process.


Colchester’s Firstsite is an art gallery and cultural centre that began life in 1994. In 2011 it moved into its new home, which has exhibition and workshop spaces as well as an auditorium.

Turner Contemporary

The Turner Contemporary, above, opened in 2011. It is on the seafront in Margate, and celebrates the artist JMW Turner’s association with the Kent town.

Hastings Contemporary

Built in 2012, Hastings Contemporary was formerly known as the Jerwood Gallery. It shows a broad range of work historical and contemporary work.
A new identity
The Jerwood Gallery’s rebirth as Hastings Contemporary this summer is the start of a new era for the seaside institution. Initially launched in 2012, the £4m privately funded gallery was created to house the Jerwood Collection, which has been developed over 25 years by the Jerwood Foundation’s chairman Alan Grieve.
But the gallery lost most of the 300-strong collection of modern British art earlier this year after a dispute with the foundation over funding. Hastings Contemporary now has a new operating model and the gallery has an eye on developing new revenue streams as part of this.

“We have developed a mixed funding base with the aim of making us as resilient as possible,” says Hastings Contemporary director Liz Gilmore. While it is still benefiting from private giving, and received an anonymous donation this year, the gallery secured support from Arts Council England as a National Portfolio Organisation (NPO), and Hastings Borough Council following its transition into a charity in 2017. This is the gallery’s first experience of public funding.

“We want to be entrepreneurial in all different ways,” Gilmore says. “It is not just about generating money, but we want to enjoy the strategic benefits of having public funding. Until we became an NPO, we didn’t have a long-term strategy, and we’d had a staccato approach to funding. We have been building momentum for two years now by picking the low-hanging fruit. Receiving funding as an NPO means we have a couple of years to work out how to pick the higher fruit.”

Meanwhile, its visitors continue to be a valuable source of revenue through ticket sales, memberships and retail and catering spend. “We are confident that the full use of our beautiful building for a more expansive programme will ensure we can continue this support,” says Gilmore.

She hopes rebranding the gallery with Hastings in the name will help it to bring more to the town. “Having such a strong resonance with the diverse communities here is vital to our role – and key to our funders. We want our work to further what Hastings can do for the south-east, a role we feel resonates greatly with private and public funders alike.”

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