Exciting things are happening at Towner Art Gallery, situated on the edge of Eastbourne’s ambitious £49 million Devonshire Quarter development.

The gallery, which hosts an impressive collection of around 4,500 artworks, is part way through a three-year programme of world-class exhibitions enabled by the National Partners Programme which brings great art from the Arts Council Collection to regional galleries. It is also developing an impressive film programme for its new state of the art auditorium.

Alongside these developments however, recent confirmation of a 50% cut in local authority funding over the next four years presents new challenges for its new director, Joe Hill, who takes up his post today.

Originally trained as an artist, Hill was previously director of Focal Point Gallery in Southend-on-Sea, moving there in 2013. Other curatorial experience includes roles at Firstsite in Colchester, the Welsh Pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale, and Camden Arts Centre, as well as project management roles with public art consultants Modus Operandi.

During his time at Focal Point, Hill introduced innovative projects such as Twenty One, a new cultural venue curated by Focal Point and located on Southend’s seafront, and Big Screen Southend, a purpose-built outdoor screen presenting artist commissions and films relative to the cultural context of Southend.

I went to visit Hill during his final weeks at Focal Point, to find out how his time in Southend might influence his approach to his new role in Eastbourne.

You’ve successfully steered Focal Point through a number of developments. Can you tell me more about some of the achievements you’re most proud of?
I think what we’ve managed to do at Focal Point is grow the organisation outside of the gallery in a stable and considered way, for example launching the outdoor screen and opening initiatives like Twenty One, bringing music and performance into the programme as a cross-cultural offer, and working with some of the six million visitors that come to the seafront every year.

But I think the project that really cemented something for me is the Radical Essex project. We were interested in research by a writer called Ken Worpole and Colin Ward’s book, Arcadia For All. We were thinking about Essex as this utopian project and how that was so at odds with its stereotype, and how interesting that crashing of those narratives might be. We developed a hugely ambitious project that took place over two to three years that tried to rewrite the narrative of an entire county. It included the Essex Architecture Weekend, looking at Essex’s pioneering role in modernism and thinking about radical community structures, socialist communities like Bata and Silver End. We tried to limit what was happening in cultural institutions and the main focus of the Architecture Weekend was actually in the village hall in Silver End – we had hundreds of people coming through there for talks and events. I’m a big believer that galleries and institutions mustn’t look inward, they must always look outward and be relevant and be a centre point for discussion in the community.

I’ve seen a lot of regional institutions that have developed programmes that aren’t relevant to the place they’re in and I’ve always found that uncomfortable, but I also think the gallery has to be a place where challenges within the community can be discussed and be a safe space for marginal communities as well.

It’s an exciting time at Towner with everything that’s happening there, but at the same time there is the local authority funding cut which the gallery is facing. Obviously this didn’t put you off taking the job, but it must play a part in your thinking because it’s something you’re going to have to tackle.
Yes, but there are other ways the council and Towner can support each other, not just through financial means. Towner’s got a role to play in Eastbourne, tackling social mobility, tackling the deficit of creative education in schools; a role around mental health and wellbeing. It does a lot of that already but I think it’s how you communicate what it’s actually achieving to the borough council. So whilst the cut is a huge blow, there’s great scope to build a renewed relationship with the local political system that benefits the town and the gallery in a really positive way.

So putting more of an emphasis on what Towner’s got to offer Eastbourne Borough Council?
Absolutely. We need to change the conversation to “How can we help you?” There’s great potential in the building actually as an income generator. Towner has got really fantastic spaces that it can utilise for a range of activities that could bring in funding, so I’m quite excited about that challenge. I think I have quite an entrepreneurial mind and I’m already bubbling away with ideas for things that could be developed. For example, at Focal Point we’ve developed an artist edition programme and were the only regional gallery invited to take part in Frieze Art Fair Allied Editions last year. We raised a huge amount of income from sales of our artist editions, which goes to supporting what we do.

I think there are also opportunities for raising funds around the Towner Collection. I was talking to the Whitworth [Gallery, Manchester] quite recently and they’ve been touring their collection to China and the Far East and making quite a lot of money doing that, so there are interesting ways that the Towner can make money without damaging its integrity as an important public gallery.

That brings up thoughts of Devonshire Collective in Eastbourne, as they are also in the position of having to be self-sustaining. I suppose maybe there is scope for cross collaboration?
Yes, definitely. At Focal Point we worked very closely with other arts organisations and groups such as TAP in Southend [an independent artist-led project space]. Partnerships are the way to go, they’re about strengthening all aspects of the creative community – one institution cannot do it alone. I strongly believe that you need a strong ecosystem to make a vibrant creative community with artist-run spaces, spaces that artists can show in, places where artists can do residencies, and then the galleries that are doing big retrospectives. You need all of it to make it work.

Are there artists that you’ve worked with over the years that you’d like to work with more in Eastbourne?
There are loads of artists I’ve worked with who I’d love to work with some more but it’s hard to do that because there are so many artists wanting opportunities, so it’s difficult to continually work with the same people. I think one big problem with the art world at the moment is there’s very little time to properly research what artists are doing and that worries me a lot because you must make time to get out and see artists. I like to think about developing programming structures that work like feeders, programming the work of developing artists.

You trained as an artist yourself. I wonder how that experience influences the way you work with artists now?
My practice was very collaborative from the start. When I left college in 2006 I was an intern at Camden Arts Centre. One thing I noticed was that almost everyone who worked there had been an artist and there was something brilliant about the way that people who’d been through the artistic process approached exhibition making. If you know the challenges of making work then I think it puts you in a good position to get the best out of artists. I am a completely hands-on person. I used to work in institutions where we’d get to the installation period and everyone would be sat in the office and I’d go, “What are you doing in here? This is the bit we work for, this is the exciting bit – working with artists, developing projects – do you not want to soak this up?” I will be up ladders and changing light bulbs, carrying things and doing things. That’s something I feel very passionately about.

For information on Towner Art Gallery’s four current exhibitions, which include Haroon Mirza curating the Arts Council Collection and ‘Natural Selection’ by Andy and Peter Holden, visit www.townereastbourne.org.uk/exhibitions/current

1. Joe Hill, director, Towner Art Gallery, and former director of Focal Point Gallery. Courtesy: Focal Point
2. Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, exterior. Photo: Avant Commercial
3. ‘The Peculiar People’ exhibition at Focal Point Gallery, which launched the gallery’s Radical Essex project. Courtesy: Focal Point Gallery
4. Andy Holden and Peter Holden, ‘Natural Selection’, installation view, Towner Art Gallery. Photo: Alison Bettles
5. ‘Inhabit’ exhibition, installation view, Towner Art Gallery. Photo: Alison Bettles

a-n Writer Development Programme

Judith Alder is an artist based in Eastbourne and one of eight a-n members selected for the a-n Writer Development Programme 2017-18. For more information on the writer programme, and to read more of the latest cohort’s work, visit the 2017-18 programme’s blog on a-n.co.uk or use the a-n writer development programme 2017-18 tag

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