After years of eager anticipation and sometimes bitter wrangling, the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings Old Town opens this weekend (17 March). The gallery has been developed by the Jerwood Foundation to house its collection of British 20th century and contemporary art, and is part of a regeneration project which includes the creation of new open space and community facilities by the local council.

 

I last wrote about this almost exactly two years ago, when antipathy among some locals including a proportion (but by no means all) of the local fishing community was at its height. While some concerns about the impact of the new gallery may have been legitimate, the bitterness was often fuelled by misinformation and just plain ignorance. The gallery has not and was never to have been built on "The Stade" - the name for the centuries-old fishing beach, fiercely defended by generations of deep-sea fishermen - but on part of a former coach and lorry park which frankly was a bit of an eyesore. Coaches still deliver visitors to the Old Town but have to park elsewhere. The rest of the former parking lot has now become public open space where events such as concerts and markets will take place. The gallery displays an important collection of modern British art for the first time and will be host to community and educational projects - ie it's not "just another gallery", but a significant addition to the growing list of major art attractions springing up along the Kent and Sussex coast, such as the Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate and the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill.

The architects, HAT, have clearly been mindful of the controversy and come up with an elegant but very low-key building designed to blend in with Hastings' iconic "net shops" - the tall black structures dating from the 19th century still in use to store and dry fishing nets, seen in the foreground of the picture above. In my view, they have rather bent over backwards to appease hostile opinion and avoid giving offence. The lines of the building are bland, but the cladding, described elsewhere as of "pewter-black tiles" is attractive and at any rate in keeping with the immediate environment.
 
I had a chance to preview the building this week before it opened to the public, courtesy of the local residents' association. The interior is surprisingly spacious and restful, and a beautiful setting for the core collection, or that portion of it that was on view. The architects have incorporated into the various internal spaces occasional picture windows affording startling views of the Old Town, the new open space and out towards the fishing beach. We weren't allowed to take photos of the interior, but I couldn't resist a shot of the beach, shrouded in a sea-mist that suddenly swirled up that afternoon, with a fading anti-Jerwood slogan on a white van parked directly behind the building.




Let's hope the anger has died down (I certainly knew about it - I was on the receiving end of threatening behaviour by one individual a couple of years ago for displaying a pro-Jerwood poster), and the gallery will be accepted as part of the landscape and prove to be an asset to the local economy as well as the local culture.

What about the art? The initial temporary exhibition of huge, quirky canvases by Rose Wylie, a Kent-based painter getting late recognition in her 70s, is worth a visit. This lasts until July, when it will be replaced by a show of paintings and sculptures by Gary Hume. The permanent collection includes works by Walter Sickert, Augustus John, Stanley Spencer, Patrick Caulfield and others less well known. I am frustrated by the lack of information on the Jerwood Gallery website, which refers vaguely to a collection of "around two hundred British oil painting and works on paper" (of which surely less than half are on display) but does not document this any further. Perhaps this is something that will be improved over the coming months and years.