Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Hastings - cultural capital of the coast?

Opening the Jerwood Gallery
Over 2,000 visitors over the first two days of being open – not a bad start for the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings. And on the evening of its first day 850 gathered on the Stade open space – despite the rain – to enjoy a performance by Fisherman’s Friends, the nationally acclaimed sea shanty singers.
What will all this really mean for Hastings? What is the quality national press saying about us?
“Art-lovers are preparing to hot foot it down to the Jerwood Gallery…the latest cultural jewel in a south coast necklace,” said the Sunday Times. “The Jerwood is a beautiful addition to the many juxtapositions – of cliff and sheds, work and distraction, ancient castle and seaside tat – that make this part of the coastline what it is,” wrote the Sunday Observer. “The art itself is wonderful. Most of the pieces are quite small and bear proper scrutiny. A number of the artists shown have worked in St Ives in Cornwall, home to a thriving artistic community and a branch of the Tate, so some of their subjects fit the Hastings seaside setting, too,” commented the Economist,
Hastings couldn’t afford to buy positive national publicity like this.
The Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate hit its annual visitor target in its first four months; Jerwood has similar potential.
 So for us it means on top of our heritage, or history, our natural setting, our promenade, our traditional seaside attractions – all the things that currently bring visitors here – we will now have a nationally significant cultural facility too.
Isn’t likely that some of those cultural visitors may want to stay for a long weekend or those short breaks that we have always been keen to encourage? That will be good news for local businesses, a number of whom are preparing for just this opportunity.
But all those positive images of Hastings don’t just have the potential to attract additional visitors; they will play their part in improving the image of our town. Businesses looking to relocate, people looking to move home, students considering where to study – they are all being given a glimpse of a Hastings that is improving, that has diverse attractions for them.
And Jerwood, alongside our many artists and cultural activists already in the town, can also make a difference to the outlook of us – the people of Hastings.
My first visit to the gallery was in the company of 50 schoolchildren. It was before there were any paintings on the walls. Those youngsters from every school in the town will be charting the progress of the gallery. But they will also be its ambassadors into their schools, into their own homes and into their communities.
They can help wet the appetites of those of us who are not in the habit of visiting galleries. Jerwood can help raise the cultural sights of Hastings people, raise all of our appreciation of what is best in art and help improve educational attainment among our children.
They were legitimately different views held about this gallery during all the discussions about whether it should go ahead. Now it is here I am sure everyone will want to make the best of it. Councillors and business people in other towns talk to me enviously about the opportunity this is bringing to Hastings.