In Issue 7 of our magazine I wrote a piece about the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings and the issue of arts-led regeneration as it played out in this historic corner of Sussex. This weekend the gallery finally opened its doors to the public amid a blaze of positive publicity. Here’s my thoughts – a kind of sequel to the magazine article – now the art is finally on show.
I remember the first time I ever walked around Hastings Old Town and amid the old fishermen’s cottages and bustling pubs, I kept seeing yellow banners emblazoned with “No to Jerwood on The Stade.” It’s discombobulating not to understand either of the two nouns in a six word sentence and in my newly-moved naivety the whole thing had a whiff of The Wicker Man.
It turned out that the Stade was the old Saxon word for beach and the Jerwood was the gallery soon to be built there. I explained in some detail in the magazine article how there developed a passionately polarised argument between those who were almost evangelical about the project and art’s potential to rehabilitate a town with many issues, and those who laughed at their opponents’ credibility, and bemoaned what they saw as financial chicanery between the council and the Jerwood Foundation (the imposition of an entrance charge still dismaying many).
Now the doors are open and artwork is on show, I don’t expect the disagreements to fade away, and indeed it’s worth having a quick look at the comments on this article from the local newspaper.
But it’s worth making a couple of points. Firstly the reaction to HAT Projects’ tile-clad structure has been uniformly upbeat and there’s a real sense they have created something both beautiful in its own right and sensitive to its centuries-old surroundings.
Secondly although the gallery is open, it would be stupid to think one side has won. The gallery and its outreach team need to design and develop programmes that connect with local people and attract day-trippers from elsewhere. This is easier said than done, and some of the projects I witnessed as a Hastings resident were embarrassingly wide-of-the-mark.
Following on from this, the people behind Jerwood need to have some humility. Personally I have no doubt they are doing an interesting and exciting thing for the town, but not everyone buys into culture in the same way, and egged on by a certain section of the popular press, a lot of art has a bad reputation.
Helping people make up their own minds, without patronising them, would be a hell of a place to start. I can’t wait to visit.