Christopher Wood, Fair at Neuilly, 1922

Towner at 100 and bringing the Turner Prize to Eastbourne

Joe Hill talks about making art inclusive and bringing the Turner Prize to Eastbourne

When he joined Towner Eastbourne as Director in 2018, Joe Hill had the ‘simple’ mission of boosting the gallery and museum’s profile, while cementing Eastbourne’s reputation on the national arts scene. Awarded the Art Fund’s Museum of the Year in 2020, it welcomes 175,000 visitors a year with a dynamic programme of exhibitions and commissions from an exciting and diverse range of artists.

Now this beloved south coast institution is about to celebrate 100 years of collecting and exhibiting contemporary works; bringing visitors to Eastbourne, while also offering something for the community around it. As way of celebration, they’re not only producing a series of extraordinary shows, but bringing the biggest event in British art to the town.

A centrepiece of the Towner’s centenary celebration, The Turner Prize exhibition comes to Eastbourne on Thurs 28 Sept – Sun 14 Jan to present the latest developments in British art. “Very early on, we were having conversations about what we wanted our centenary to feel like,” says Hill. “We all wanted it to be a town-wide celebration of this art gallery for the people. So, it had to be big enough to involve a lot of people in the town, but also wanted to be forward-thinking. What’s the gallery and museum going to be doing for the next 100 years?” Bringing this internationally-renowned competition to the town had been an early ambition, especially when it was realised 2023 would be one of the years when it was staged outside of London.

Clare Woods, Nowhere Fast, 2020. Towner Eastbourne. Copyright the Artist

Not that the selection process was quick or simple. The prize habitually travels to the UK’s designated city of culture as part of a year-long period of festivities. This year falling outside of that quadrennial cycle meant The Towner was up against some really big cities vying for the same prize. Hill says there were numerous caveats in the bidding process. The museum and gallery had to show it could be adaptable to different art forms. Details of the four shortlisted artists aren’t released until May, so his summer will be filled with pulling four very different exhibitions together.

The Turner Prize is intended to spark a public debate about what art really is. “That’s where the shock thing comes in, with your Damien Hirsts and Tracey Emins, and the tabloids love it. Taking it out into other spaces allows more people to be involved in it.” The show has certainly had its moments in the past. Previous shows have included elephant dung, a concrete cast of negative space left by a demolished house, sex dolls, a film of someone walking around in a bear suit and preserved animals in tanks. It often incites brutal criticism in every corner of British society, from the KLF and Banksy to Government ministers and royalty. Although JMW Turner, the prize’s namesake, was considered something of a boisterous radical in his time, this fierce dispute about what is good and proper to call art rages to this day. 

In a world where art is often driven to the margins in an increasingly commercial world, all the surrounding controversy and conversation grabs our attention.

The Turner Prize has given a first huge platform to some of the nation’s most celebrated modern artists. And soon it’ll also offer a massive stage for the town. The Turner Prize draws together a diverse range of cultural institutions, media and even global icons. Hill has been attending the event for several years and tells me it’s the one thing which draws the art world together. “We were going up to Liverpool last year, and the trains were messed up. So, we were stuck at Euston, with all the major gallery directors, previous winning artist and a who’s who of the art world, eating Pret a Manger, waiting to see if they can get a train. It’s your worst nightmare on an awards evening. But it’s amazing how it’s a draw for all these people, and for celebs… It’s got that buzz about it. You get people like Madonna giving out awards. To have that focus and attention on Eastbourne is amazing.”

William Nicholson, Judd’s Farm, 1912. ©The Artist’s Estate

By involving work which is provocative and conceptual, or even shocking, The Turner Prize not only forces us to examine what art can be, but also brings in a wider audience, one which might not regularly interact with contemporary exhibitions. It very much runs parallel with the Towner’s ambition to overcome barriers to entry and bring what they do to as many people as possible. They’ll be working with Eastbourne Council and the wider community to see how the show can bring a positive and vibrant impact to the town. A wraparound programme will see a range of activities and public events, collaborating with schools and arts collectives, and creating a cultural feeling as soon as you step off the train.

There’s a desire to generate a sense of pride in the town and what it can achieve, and perhaps even inspire a future Turner winner. Hill grew up in a small West Yorkshire town. “If something like this had happened there, it would have been so exciting.”

The Towner is rooted in this desire to open art up to everyone. It started with the bequest of 22 paintings and £6,000 from Alderman John Towner. The original gallery opened 1923, house within an 18th century manor house. Temporary exhibitions were being shown alongside displays from the Collection, something which has continued to this day. It was initially grown with the acquisitions of Sussex landscape paintings, offering a record of the beautiful sights found across the county. This has evolved into bringing together a significant representation of styles and techniques – now accommodating both the South East Arts Collection of Contemporary Art and works from some of the world’s most compelling artists; including Alfred Wallis, Eric Ravilious, Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore, Victor Pasmore, Frances Hodgkins, Grayson Perry, John Akomfrah, Laurence Abu Hamdan, Tacita Dean, Olafur Eliasson, Omer Fast, Anya Gallaccio, Julian Opie, David Nash, Dineo Seshee Bopape and Rachel Jones.

By the 60s, the Towner was renowned as one of the country’s most forward-thinking municipal galleries. The growth in both collection and ambitions saw it move to a purpose-built home on Devonshire Park College Road in April 2009. This community space features a cinema, learning areas, extensive exhibition spaces and a Collection Library. It’s a hard building to ignore. A vibrant mural (commissioned for the tenth anniversary of the building) on its exterior and open façade sets it apart from the notion of galleries being stuffy institutions suited only to the knowledgeable or prosperous.

Exterior Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, c.1930s

“It’s all about saying: ‘Come in. Don’t get too worried. You don’t have to be an art expert to enjoy yourself.’ It was only supposed to be year-long commission. But it’s become iconic, so we’ve worked with the artists to keep it longer and longer. It helps to make people feel more comfortable inside. It’s amazing how it’s changed how people feel about the space.” The Towner has been specially designed, so people can develop a sense of ownership over the space.

It’s indicative of a booming scene across Sussex. While once overlooked in favour of the attractions offered by the capital, numerous local institutions are providing compelling cultural offerings.

“You’ve got lots of choice now, with the De La Warr in Hastings, Charleston and Glyndebourne, there’s all of these places which are really close to each other.” With the Towner’s centenary year and the Turner show, there’s a wish present what’s happening as a county-wide event. “You might be coming for the Turner Prize, but you can stay for the weekend, and go to Lewes or Brighton, or go for a walk on the Downs.”

Hill says taking on and evolving his role has been an interesting journey. There’s still so much potential in the Towner, and the town in general. In some ways he feels like an ambassador for Eastbourne on a cultural level. A member of the Chamber Of Commerce and Devonshire Collective, he works closely with Eastbourne Council. “They’re really brilliant at being open to all kinds of conversations with all sorts of people about festivals and art activities.”

Helen Cammock, The Long Note, performance at Arnold Circus for Kate MacGarry, part of Performance Exchange London, 2021. Photo_ Manuela Barczewski

Eastbourne was a tiny market town, until the late 18th century when the fashion for bathing in seawater brought an influx of tourists. When the railway reached the town in 1849, it saw a boom in house-building – largely facilitated by two landowners; the Duke of Devonshire and John Davies Gilbert. Then came a pier and the Italian Gardens, establishing the town’s reputation as a picturesque seaside destination. Unlike many of its neighbouring settlements, Eastbourne was designed around landscape and cultural offerings and it’s managing to move beyond the long-held idea that the town was ‘God’s waiting room’. It’s demographic is rapidly shifting, with a lot more diversity and young families flocking to the area. A growing reputation for leading-edge arts and culture has certainly helped this. “We’ve been getting all this fantastic press,” says Hill. “Time Out selected it as 2023’s destination to go to in the UK. When I got here, you’d never have thought of getting that sort of thing. Just the level of ambition, with hosting the Turner Prize and all the other activities, really shifts the perception of a place.” 

The centenary celebrations go far beyond hosting the Turner Prize though.

There’ll be a plethora of events, shows, arts and ceramics fairs and collaborations across the town, as well as working in partnership with Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion to create an exciting music programme later in the year. Obviously there’ll be a party to mark the anniversary. “But we don’t want to do a stuffy evening event with champagne and everything. It’s more about throwing open the doors and have some free food and music. People can come by, have a beer, and have some fun.”

Towner 100 The Living Collection

Already up and running at the gallery, until Mon 28 Aug, The Living Collection considers Towner’s broad and varied history of collecting and exhibiting. It draws from the cream of the 5,000 works, including pieces from Eric Ravilious, Edward Wadsworth, Vanessa Bell, Gertrude Hermes, William Gear and Greta Delleany, to offer a unique look at how 100 years has shaped the collection.

On Sat 11 Feb – Sun 14 May, Unseen will be questioning what the future might hold for the Towner by highlighting a selection of new works which have recently joined the collection. It brings together painting, moving image, prints, drawing and illustration, sculpture, installation and photography, from artists like Dineo Seshee Bopape, Tom Hammick, Roland Jarvis, Rachel Jones, David Nash, Elizabeth Price, Jem Southam and Clare Woods. “It’s all the big ambitious acquisitions we’ve made over the last few years. It asks why we’re collecting and what we’re trying to do. There’s some really big names in there. It should be quite a fun, energetic exhibition, looking at the role of the collection.”

Centrepiece of the summer is the biggest Barbara Hepworth show to be staged in the south east on Sat 27 May to Sun 3 Sept. Art & Life will display some of Hepworth’s most celebrated sculptures. These include the modern abstract carving which launched her career in the 20s, her iconic strung sculptures of the 40s and 50s, and large-scale bronze and carved sculptures from later in her career. Key loans from national public collections will be shown alongside privately-owned works which have not been on public display since the 70s. The exhibition will explore and encourage new interpretations around Hepworth’s broader interests in music, dance, theatre, politics and literature.

Dineo Seshee Bopape, Sedibeng, it comes with the rain, Towner Eastbourne, 2019. Photo by Rob Harris

There’s also a range of other ambitious projects, commissioning three public art pieces around the town and working with local organisations.

“They’re very much about putting an artist in a community setting and producing an artwork together. There’s also a very ambitious one which is going to be either on the seafront or on the square outside the gallery. These will be developed over the year and delivered at the end of the centenary.”

Looking forwards to 2024, Towner Eastbourne will be building on the momentum and legacy of their centenary year. There are ambitious plans for Black Robin Farm, nestled in the South Downs on the western edge of Eastbourne, to deliver an inclusive and accessible centre for culture for both audiences and artists which makes a connection between the downland space and the town. The gallery will also be working with grassroots artists organisations in Newhaven to create a bold new creative project. “We’re not talking about just one building. It’s the whole town… and beyond. I love doing it. This is an exciting moment to be here.”

While all the towns along the south coast have their own distinctiveness, Eastbourne’s identity has been undeniably impacted by Towner’s bold commitment to acquiring and exhibiting contemporary art. It’s gone from twenty-something paintings left for the people’s benefit to stamping the town’s name on the international cultural scene. “Moving it into the new building has stepped up massively,” Hill tells me. “The ambition has just grown and grown over the years. It takes a while to find your feet with a new building. I think it’s taken five or ten years to really understand what works in the building, what audiences want and how we can play a role locally. Now, it’s time to sit back and have a bit of a celebration.”

Towner Eastbourne celebrates its 100th anniversary with a arrange of events and free exhibitions throughout 2023. It also hosts The Turner Prize on Thurs 28 Sept – Sun 14 Jan. for more details, visit:

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