Not many venues have had their dirty laundry paraded in the national press before opening. The Jerwood Gallery lost most of its 300-strong collection of modern British art after a dispute over funding with its sponsor, the Jerwood Foundation, which had been the gallery’s main stakeholder since it opened in Hastings in 2012.
Roughly half of the art on show was from the Jerwood collection, compared to now, where the newly branded Hastings Contemporary has a much more free-form temporary exhibitions programme.
The differences are subtle yet pronounced: a skip in the step of the staff, a nod to the local arts community, a tweak to the membership scheme and no permanent collection.
Most gallery and museum professionals would balk at the loss of artworks that include heavyweights of British 20th-century visual art such as LS Lowry, Stanley Spencer and Barbara Hepworth. But not this venue, which had always largely relegated the foundation’s collection to the distant galleries of the building.
You can almost sense the excitement of a staff freed from the constraints of a permanent collection. The curators are relying solely on temporary shows – not that this is uncharted territory. In its previous incarnation, the gallery had built its reputation on temporary shows and was proud that more than 90% of visitors came for these, not the permanent displays.
Hastings Contemporary’s inaugural offering embraces a range of contemporary and modern art that is local, national and international in its composition. The standout exhibition is Tal R: Eventually All Museums Will Be Ships.
Tal R is one of Denmark’s foremost visual artists and this show serves up a visual feast of riotous colours, sketches and sculptures exploring “places, objects and the preconceptions that define us as people”, says the introductory panel. It is spread across the ground floor and courtyard before merging with the Roy Oxlade: Shine Out Fair Son show towards the rear of the building.
Shine Out Fair Son is a journey through Oxlade’s 60-year career as an artist, writer and teacher. Spread across the first and second floors, it sweeps you through his work and shows why he is considered “one of the most impressive British painters of the past 50 years”, as the Guardian has called him.
Then there’s Quentin Blake: The New Dress, which is an emerging body of work by the illustrator in response to the gallery’s transformation. Blake, a Hastings resident and the gallery’s first artist patron, captures the possibilities that exists in creating something new by recycling the old.
For me, the intimate display of works by Oxlade and David Bomberg, who was his teacher, from the 1950s was the most enjoyable. The sense of freedom and experimentation between student and teacher is clear, but unfortunately is too fleeting. Hastings Contemporary is unapologetically a serious space for art. As an opening pitch, it is a strong offering that balances the ambitions of the gallery with the sensibilities of its audience.
The interpretation is uniform, consistent and clean; it feels right for the space. The house style seems to be lengthy wall texts introducing each exhibition, a few quotes from the artists and basic object labels next to each artwork.
The downside is that you do not come away feeling like you have gained an insight into individual works or the artist overall, but at the same time you have not been bamboozled by artspeak. The artworks have all been mounted beautifully: I was particularly impressed by Tal R’s blue works and Blake’s graphite on paper drawings.
A pet peeve is a lack of clear delineation between the exhibitions, as one gives way to the next with minimal notice or transitional space. On the plus side, this helps to draw you through the galleries, but it can be disorientating.
Indeed, if you do find yourself in one of the non-art spaces the building can feel cold; the children’s area under the stairs is a particular example. The wayfinding is discreet, at times a little too much so, but does move you around the building successfully once located. There is a good cafe and a balcony with superb views across Stade beach.
Hastings Contemporary is a great new addition to the cultural landscape of the town, but it must continue to embrace the local community to be a success.
In its former incarnation as the Jerwood Gallery, a fair criticism was its disengagement from the vibrant local arts and cultural scene in Hastings. But I appreciate what it is trying to do: it is on a knife edge around getting a balance that attracts tourists into the gallery while also appealing to, and working with, the residents of some of the poorest wards in England.
Hastings Contemporary has started strong, with a clear vision that Liz Gilmore, the director, and the new board are behind. But the proof will be in what comes next and if they can sustain this balanced mix of high-quality art that appeals to a broad audience.
Damian Etherington is the museum and cultural development manager at Hastings Museum & Art Gallery
- Cost Undisclosed
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- Exhibition ends Tal R: Eventually All Museums Will Be Ships, until 13 October; Roy Oxlade: Shine Out Fair Sun, until 6 October; Quentin Blake: The New Dress, until 6 October; Roy Oxlade and David Bomberg, until 6 October
- Admission Adult £9; child, free