THE much-anticipated Jerwood Gallery opened its doors to the public in March last year, with a crowd of eager visitors queuing to get a first glimpse of the inside of the newly constructed building.
A year later word has spread far and wide, with around 65,000 visitors passing through the doors so far, and popularity evidenced by the opening night of the latest exhibition Knock Knock: Seven Artists in Hastings, last month, which saw the gallery packed to capacity.
Almost exactly a year ago Liz Gilmore, Jerwood Gallery director, and I were standing on the balcony of the gallery, looking out over the fishing beach, and wondering about the future.
This part of The Stade had already changed beyond recognition with the construction of the £4 million gallery designed by firm of architects HAT Projects, but there were still many uncertainties ahead.
“I often think about that moment,” she said. “There were some ambitions of what Jerwood Gallery was to be: a permanent home for the collection, to keep the collection fresh and interesting, to be the cultural hub for Hastings.
“It’s been challenging, it’s been stretching, but it’s been joyful.”
Liz said that she was delighted with the first year’s visitor numbers, which compare favourably with similar galleries such as Pallant House, in Chichester.
Interestingly, of the seven artists who feature in Knock Knock, only one had exhibited in Hastings before yet all either have a home or studio in the town. Some are internationally known and yet have never been connected to Hastings.
I asked Liz about this and she replied that the answer given was that before now there was not a suitable space for them to show their work. Another argument in favour of the Jerwood Gallery.
Worthy of mention is the varied demographic of the visitors, with a third local residents, another third concession tickets, largely senior citizens (local or otherwise), and a third from further afield.
The membership scheme, launched in August, has exceeded all expectations, and there are now around 700 members, many of whom, Liz said, have become familiar faces.
One of the major challenges for the gallery has been and continues to be, catering for a number of different audiences and appetites. Liz described it as a ‘juggling act’.
For example, the permanent collection is perhaps more popular with the older visitors, while the contemporary programme can be more of a challenge, and appeal to different crowds.
“We need to make sure we have sustained momentum,” she said.
With this in mind, the plan going forward is to have a quarterly programme of temporary exhibitions. Coming up next is an exhibition of work by painter William Scott, some of which has not been seen for 40 years, and which Liz said that she expects people to be surprised by.
Also in the pipeline is a collaboration with Tate Britain and St Ives (planned for later this year), and a show for families.
She paid tribute to the enthusiasm and commitment of the seven core team members and around 15 gallery assistants, and said: “The gallery assistants are the most talked about assets, they are people who have grown up here.”
As well as a largely positive response locally, there has been a considerable amount of favourable national press coverage.
Andrew Lambirth, of The Spectator, wrote: “I’m glad Hastings has this new gallery — in the old town, fittingly; it has long been an artistic quarter...the Jerwood will join the other new cultural palaces on the south east coast at Margate, Folkestone and Bexhill.”
Other accolades include the Public and Community Award, given by the Sussex Heritage Trust in October last year, and the recent announcement that Jerwood Gallery is one of the winners in the 2013 Civic Trust Awards, both in recognition of the design of the gallery and its place in the community.
Councillor Jeremy Birch, leader of Hastings Borough Council, said: “We continue to receive, tremendous feedback on the gallery, and know that it has attracted more people to Hastings.
“It is a great addition to our attractions, doing what we hoped it would, attracting extra visitors all year round, as well as creating vitally important local jobs. It is especially appropriate that the Jerwood Gallery is marking its first birthday just days after our bid to become a ‘City of Culture’ has been announced, as it has really helped to change our cultural status.” See page 63 for details of this weekend’s events at the gallery or visit www.jerwoodgallery.org.