In the final few years of the last Labour government, we witnessed an unprecedented investment in the cultural sector with a succession of high-profile openings of purpose-built regional galleries in places like Margate, Eastbourne, Colchester, Nottingham and Wakefield.
Encouraged by the public’s growing interest in contemporary art following the Young British Artist (YBA) movement, and on the back of the culture-led regeneration statistics surrounding the two new Tate galleries and the Baltic in Newcastle, this new wave of galleries was conceived prior to the financial crash and delivered shortly after.
What set this new group of galleries apart was the desire for them to also fulfil a local desire for standout architectural buildings. Stimulated by now-defunct bodies like the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, these new institutions would be a local government’s delivery vehicle for cultural regeneration, educational aspiration and economic prosperity.
A decade on, as these institutions now face budget cuts and ever increasing expectations on their scope, how have they fared? How have they adapted their approaches to survive and what new funding models will continue to support these spaces in the future?
During my career I have had the opportunity to work for two of these new wave institutions and I have followed the development of the other galleries with interest. Now recently appointed as the director of Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne, I am encouraged by the range of skills and abilities my team are willing to engage with and deliver at a professional level.
It is clear that these galleries offer an opportunity, outside of the traditional restraints of local authority control, to use funding in imaginative and efficient ways to support the contracting of front line services and address gaps in mainstream education curricula.
It is this ability to operate professionally and creatively on a local, national and international level that is helping shape new strategies for these galleries. With the disappearance of local government cultural development provision, these institutions are attempting to fill the gap.
Once thought of as the new alternative seaside or heritage attractions for visitors and tourists, these buildings are now more focused than ever on being open, safe spaces for their communities, driving skills agendas around the arts and business development, as well as leading the tourism and place-making ambitions for their regions – and often the country.
These institutions are demonstrating their impact on many levels, but the shift towards more responsive, creative programming that originates from the social context of these places is key to developing a new conversation about a healthy and prosperous future vision for these communities.
New strategic partnerships are the key to maximising impact in this area and ensuring the development of new and robust funding models. New regional partners, like Local Enterprise Partnerships, regional development agencies and even national services like the NHS, the police and tourism bodies, are able to help these galleries to grow their offer and provide access to new funding streams, as well as skills and strategies for working.
For me, Towner and the other galleries must be much more than visitor attractions, they must strive to be essential community resources guided by creative learning, which are key to motivating the aspirations and ambitions of the region.
Towner Art Gallery is Museum Partner for London Art Fair 2019, which takes place at the Business Design Centre in Islington from 16-20 January. Curated by Joe Hill, Towner will present The Living Collection, an exhibition that celebrates the gallery’s rich heritage of collecting, exhibiting and championing contemporary art for almost a century.
Joe Hill will chair the panel discussion, Future Visions: A decade on from major investment in regional galleries, at London Art Fair 2019 on Wednesday 16 January 2019, from 10.30 - 11.45am. Please contact Merve Sulun, programme coordinator, if you would like to attend: email@example.com