Winners’ Tales: How Towner Eastbourne ‘lives and breathes’ community

Posted on 15/10/2020

Over the next few weeks, the five Art Fund Museum of the Year 2020 winners will be sharing some of their experiences from the past year. Towner Eastbourne director Joe Hill explains how working with the local community is central to the gallery’s ethos.

At Towner Eastbourne in 2019, during our 10th anniversary celebrations for the current building, we began speaking to our communities about the concept of Eastbourne ALIVE. This ‘slogan’ – worn proudly on our tote bag and badges, spoken about to our stakeholders and seen across Sussex on brightly coloured billboards – was part of a deeper, strategic idea centred on the rejuvenation and resurgence of the art gallery as a community hub. Positioning Towner Eastbourne at the centre of our town, with a vital civic role to play, was something that we wanted to be at the forefront of our new vision and refreshed mission and values.

In the 2000s, we witnessed unprecedented investment in the cultural sector, followed by a succession of high-profile openings of purpose-built regional galleries in places like Eastbourne, as well as Margate, Colchester, Nottingham and Wakefield. This set of institutions, stimulated by now-defunct bodies like the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, were a vehicle for cultural regeneration, educational aspiration and economic prosperity. Commissioned before the financial crash of 2008, most of these institutions opened to a very different social and economic setting.

A decade on, as each of these regional galleries – our friends, partners and colleagues across the UK – celebrate a busy 10 years, it’s a good time to look back on what we have achieved and learned, and consider what might come next. How can we continue to ensure these spaces are ALIVE, relevant and continue to be responsive to the needs of their community? How can galleries further cement their role as a forum for everyone to explore, debate and connect, to develop our communities for the future, acting as a beacon for their aspirations?

Celebrating the local

During my career, I have had the opportunity to work for two of this new wave of regional institutions – Firstsite in Colchester and here at Towner on the Sussex coast. I have, meanwhile, followed the development of the other galleries with interest. From discussions with other directors and teams, it seems that the learning has mirrored itself across the country. Each institution, while celebrating their jewel-like world-class architecture, has quickly learned that the building is merely a tool by which we must live and breathe the communities around it. Grounding themselves in place, these galleries have learned to celebrate the local within the framework of the global, often challenging negative and misunderstood perceptions of a place.

As we reflected on these very issues at Towner, we wanted to commission an artwork that would reflect this learning and show how we see our role in Eastbourne in the future. Dance Diagonal (2019), by artist Lothar Götz, is a painted artwork that wraps the entire building in a lively geometric pattern, converting the white (modernist-inspired) façade into a three-dimensional artwork in vivid colour. This gesture of disrupting the iconic design of the building helped to demonstrate a less rigid position and therefore connects us more closely with our community, encouraging more people to be confident about coming inside. As a result of the subtle shift in these approaches, the gallery welcomed record audience figures of 165,000 visitors during 2019.

It is clear that these institutions continue to go beyond their original remit, and in light of a decade of austerity, they are looked to more and more for imaginative and efficient ways to address gaps in mainstream education curricula, community engagement or mental health provision. While we have a role in all of these areas, it is critical this is not used as a justification to further reduce provision or cut essential services locally. We can all make a difference to our communities if we work collaboratively with them, and in partnership with community organisations and essential services. I am so proud of the efforts of the team during lockdown; working closely with local foodbank, refugee and mental health charities, we were able to deliver over 1,000 packs of art materials and activities to some of the most vulnerable and isolated households in the area. It is this partnership-working that will help us to effectively support the health and wellbeing of our communities.

Building a ‘better normal’

As we all face the challenges of Covid-19 and the economic and social fallout from it, it is essential that these organisations can continue to adapt and remain agile, as the needs of our communities change. I have become tired of people talking about returning to the ‘normal’ of February 2020. I hope we can view this as the opportunity to consider our individual, collective and institutional responsibility to build a better normal. This is even more vital as the crisis sheds further light on the continued structural inequality experienced by so many people and the deep challenges presented by our changing climate and environment. At this time, we must look to these spaces as places to test out new ideas and models for society. At the heart of our communities, the gallery can continue to motivate and deliver the aspirations and ambitions of the region.

I am delighted that Towner has been recognised this year as Art Fund Museum of the Year 2020. It is an important recognition for the hard work, dedication and passion shown by our wonderful team, and provides a strong framework to build on as we approach the gallery’s centenary celebrations in 2023.

(This article is a re-post from the Art Fund’s website).