Towner, Eastbourne

Eastbourne's new contemporary art museum has brought a much-needed cultural stimulus to this seaside town, writes Tom Flynn
Tom Flynn
The East Sussex seaside town of Eastbourne has a spanking new architect-designed contemporary art museum - Towner - just a minute's walk from the seafront in what is already being described in the optimistic parlance of urban regeneration as "a new cultural quarter".

Recent highlights at the adjoining Congress Theatre included Jim Davidson's On the Offensive tour, confirming that culture has always been a negotiable concept.

Towner (note the Tate-inspired absence of the definite article), by Rick Mather Architects, is essentially a new home for an established collection. The original Towner Collection of 221 mainly traditional landscape and genre paintings was bequeathed to Eastbourne Corporation by local businessman Alderman John Chisholm Towner in 1920.

From 1923 it was housed in an 18th-century villa in Manor Gardens in Eastbourne's Old Town District. Past curators included the painter William Gear, who strengthened the collection's Modern British holdings and added works by his contemporaries including Bryan Wynter, Sandra Blow and Roger Hilton. Gear himself is particularly well-represented, making Towner an obvious venue for a long-overdue retrospective.

Supported by money from Arts Council England, the Heritage Lottery Fund, and the South East England Development Agency, the 2,600 sq metre building went up at a cost of £8.58m, which is regarded by many as something of a bargain.

Constructed from reinforced concrete, its three floors incorporate flexible gallery spaces for both the permanent collection and temporary exhibitions, plus educational and conference facilities, offices, spacious art storage, a restaurant and foyer bookshop.

The building occupies a corner site connected to the Grade II Listed Congress Theatre in the Devonshire Park area of the town where each year the pre-Wimbledon International Tennis Championship takes place.

Towner's gracefully curving exterior wall echoes the cliff face of nearby Beachy Head and strikes a bold contemporary note in contrast to the neighbouring hotels and theatres. Its white-painted surface is articulated by sharply angled balconies and window apertures offering generous views across to the South Downs and towards the sea.

The plentiful windows not only make the interior refreshingly rich in natural light, but also help combat what architect Rick Mather describes as "culture fatigue"; the exhaustion that sets in after spending extended periods wandering around a museum with limited views of the surrounding area.

A building and a collection

At the opening ceremony in April, Tate director Nicholas Serota announced, "Towner is not a museum of contemporary art, it is a contemporary art museum, revealing how capital projects in the museum world are treated with a veneration that often overshadows the collections themselves. In fact, the Towner is both a contemporary building and an increasingly contemporary collection.

Aside from its strong Modern British holdings and a superb collection of works by Eric Ravilious, in recent years, under the able and fastidious directorship of Matthew Rowe, formerly of Tate St Ives, Towner's holdings have grown significantly to include contemporary works.

With the help of the Contemporary Art Society's Special Collection Scheme, Towner's 4,000-piece collection now includes works by Tacita Dean, Wolfgang Tillmans, Anya Gallaccio and Olafur Eliasson. Furthermore, in 2007, Towner was awarded £1m through the Art Fund International scheme to acquire works of international contemporary art.

Now that the building is fully open, that acquisition process can begin. Contemporary art may be just the kind of thing to rescue Eastbourne from its traditional profile as an Edwardian seaside retirement home.

An early challenge will be to introduce the Eastbourne public to what are all too commonly perceived as the hermetic mysteries of contemporary art. The first volley in this campaign was the decision to devote the largest gallery space on the second floor to the first UK exhibition, which closed last month, by Chilean contemporary artist Iván Navarro.

Navarro's post-minimalist, Dan Flavin-inspired fluorescent tube constructions of gymnastic figures, based on the pictogram of a running man used to brand the 1972 Munich Olympics, met with broad approval from younger visitors while leaving older Eastbourneans somewhat bemused.

"Is this modern art?" one visitor asked me as I strolled through the gallery. "Yes, it's contemporary art," I replied. "I could have done that," he scoffed. "Yes, but you didn't, did you?" was the obvious response.

On the first floor, the permanent collection had been edited for the opening into a 50-work exhibition entitled The People's Choice. Towner Friends and local residents were invited to select their favourite pictures in categories such as Landscape, People & Figures, Abstract, Seascapes, Eric Ravilious, and so on. The result was a show of creative juxtapositions working across period and theme that demonstrated the growing strength of the Towner collection.

On the up

Over the coming years, Eastbourne will be expected to benefit from a small-scale version of the Bilbao effect - the fashionable theory that a bold, architect-designed museum, will reinvigorate an urban centre and help alleviate social problems brought about by poverty and unemployment.

As part of the opening, the downstairs galleries displayed the fruits of Towner's outreach projects aimed at schools, young offenders and socially deprived groups. For the most part, these seemed like encouraging and worthwhile initiatives, although the room entitled Lost Horizons included a baffling wall text that failed to explain the nature of the project.

Eastbourne needs a Towner. There is little doubt that the energetic young team will help create a vibrant destination in a resort otherwise deprived of serious cultural stimuli. Jim Davidson, your days are numbered.

Tom Flynn is a freelance journalist

Project data

Cost: £8.58m
Main funders: Arts Council England £2.6m, South East England Development Agency £2.2m, Heritage Lottery Fund £2m, Eastbourne Borough Council
Architect: Rick Mather Associates
Main contractor: Morgan Ashurst
M&E consultant: Mott MacDonald
Quantity surveyor and planning supervisor: Gardiner and Theobald
Project management: Cragg Management Services
Lighting consultant: DPA Lighting Consultants
Acoustics consultant: Sandy Brown Associates

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