Jerwood Gallery, Hastings

Yet another arts venue has opened on the south coast and while there is a lot that's good about the Jerwood Gallery, it will need to do more if it's to thrive, argues Maurice Davies
Maurice Davies
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Plenty of new galleries have opened in the past few years: Hepworth Wakefield; Nottingham Contemporary; and Firstsite in Colchester. And there’s been a particular boom on the south coast: Margate’s Turner Contemporary; Bexhill on Sea’s De la Warr Pavilion; and the Towner in Eastbourne.

Now the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings has joined them, although it’s rather different to the others.

Financially it’s different. It was funded by the Jerwood Foundation rather than the Arts Council England or the Heritage Lottery Fund. And while the others are all free-to-enter, Jerwood charges £7 (much less for local residents).

Design-wise it’s different. Joyously, natural light and fresh air flood in, through large windows, many of them open.

It feels connected to the world outside, not hermetically sealed from it (although it is partially air-conditioned).

Content-wise, it’s different. Most of the new art galleries are primarily exhibition venues, many don’t have a collection (Hepworth Wakefield and the Towner are notable exceptions).

The Jerwood Gallery has an exhibition space but the main attraction is a collection of mid-20th century British painting, built up over the past 20 years by the philanthropic Jerwood Foundation.

The works are generally domestic in scale, representational (with a few relatively easy-to-read abstracts) and easy on the eye – certainly not the conceptual, challenging (and often ugly) contemporary art favoured by the arts council and Tate and most of the galleries they support.

The art at Jerwood is pleasant and well-crafted rather than demanding, polemical and theoretical; you’d happily have most of it in your home.

“Grand domestic”

The Jerwood Gallery is very nice, if you like that sort of thing. It’s smart and restrained. Outside it’s clad with tiles, hand-glazed locally to a black pewter finish, and sits comfortably among the neighbouring dark timber-clad fishing buildings, including Hastings’ eccentric net shops, which resemble towering black garden sheds.

Inside it’s all crisp white walls and ceilings and polished terrazzo floors. There’s a bit of fashionable smooth concrete, and some oak and gently rusted steel on the stairs. The most noticeable feature of the interior is the natural light.

It enters the building from all directions – through unobstructed rooflights and through generous windows, some of them floor to ceiling. Every gallery space has some natural light.

There are two main display areas: a fairly stark concrete-floored exhibition gallery, just off the reception area, with a window onto the street, and a separate sequence of seven interconnecting galleries for the collection. On two floors, these are all small, almost domestic in scale. (Gallery director Liz Gilmore likes to describe the whole building as “grand domestic” in feel.)

The collection galleries are air-conditioned; happily, all the cooling, and some of the heating, comes from 120-metre deep ground-source probes. The loos flush with rainwater and solar-thermal panels heat the tap water.

There’s LED lighting in circulation spaces and in the cafe – but energy-hungry halogen is used in the collection galleries. Architect Hana Loftus told me that at the time the lighting was specified, LEDs were still a little uncertain and expensive. But technology has advanced rapidly and if she were specifying gallery lighting today she’d probably choose LEDs.

This experience is common to several recently opened museums and galleries (for example, the Watts Gallery in Surrey) and makes me wonder whether it might be sensible to find ways to leave specifying lighting until the latest possible stage in the design process.

Interpretation is by means of individual picture labels printed on the wall and larger introductory texts, also printed on the wall. It’s all well written, apart from an annoying shortage of paragraph breaks, but the introductory texts are probably too long – hardly anyone seemed to bother to read them.

The picture labels focus on biographical and art-historical background and assume a certain amount of prior knowledge.

Sadly, the gallery misses opportunities to encourage visitors to slow down and look more closely. There’s no interpretation for the novice, or for children. There aren’t even any seats in the galleries. In fact, apart from the cafe, the only places to sit are under the stairs, or on a concrete bench in a rather chilly courtyard.

Audience focus

The cafe is upstairs at the back, looking out over boats and sheds to the beach and the sea. It’s light and sunny with a balcony. The plentiful and efficient staff serve food that is freshly cooked and locally sourced.

Strangely, the cafe was two-thirds empty – on Sunday lunchtime, the weekend after opening. The streets outside were bustling, but the gallery was far from crowded. The people inside were noticeably different to the crowds passing-by.

They were mainly middle aged and middle class (like me), with a smattering of mildly precocious children. Mind you, it was far busier than the free-admission Hastings Museum and Art Gallery.

It’s early days, of course. Until recently the gallery’s staffing was minimal and the community and learning programmes don’t seem to have got going yet. There’s a smart studio room for activities, but it’s still intimidatingly clean.

The gallery will have to work hard to achieve its ambition to “become a cultural hub in Hastings, through our work in schools and the wider community”.

But if it’s going to attract reasonable numbers of visitors over the long term, the gallery’s approach needs to be a little more audience focused. Seven pounds feels expensive for what’s on offer and I can’t see the temporary exhibitions drawing in vast numbers. (Next is a Gary Hume show and after that Gillian Ayres’s works from the 1950s.)

The Jerwood Gallery is an attractive building with a pleasant collection. It’s a well meaning, public-spirited, philanthropic undertaking, but it feels a little “take it or leave it”. If it’s going to thrive it will need to offer more and do more: more to attract a wider range of people, more to engage them and more to encourage them to linger longer.

Maurice Davies is the head of policy and communication at the Museums Association

Project data

  • Cost £4m
  • Main funder Jerwood Foundation
  • Architect HAT Projects
  • Main contractor Coniston
  • Mechanical and electrical services GRJ Building Services

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