News: Towner Gallery aims to bring £100,000 Art Fund Prize to Eastbourne

The steel and concrete fixtures of a contemporary art gallery ring with the ancient call of a town crier. He cuts an incongruous figure, in tailcoat, top hat and gold brocade.

“Oh yeah! Oh yeah! Oh yeah! Please support Towner’s entry in the Art Fund Prize by putting an entry on the computer.”

It is Love Your Museum weekend and visitors can tell judges of the £100,000 prize just how much they love Eastbourne’s Towner Gallery via a laptop in the atrium.

But first there is the small matter of a cheering contest. With help from the intercom, the master of ceremonies gathers around 40 people in a ground floor gallery for the purposes of out-screaming the other venues on the recently announced Prize longlist.

“If you can imagine for a moment that you are not art lovers,” cries the crier, “but you are vocalists in a heavy metal band, or are cheering for your favourite football team, or have just seen someone about to put their elbow through your car window.”

After two rehearsals, the small crowd roars en masse “I love the Towner”, and the decibel meter reads 121.7 dB. That’s louder than sandblasting.

Job done for town crier Peter White. He is clearly not fazed by stark white walls and modern art. “I’ve done everywhere,” he says. “I’ve done them in caves. I’ve done them in churches. I’ve done them on the Newhaven-Dieppe Ferry, and in a lifeboat.

“But I think this is the first time I’ve done one inside the gallery. They haven’t wanted that much noise.”

Later on, the Gallery more quietly demonstrates its strengths in collecting art and engaging visitors, with public tours of the store room and a drop-in family workshop with artist Ed Boxall.

Throughout the day, their purpose-designed building dazzles in early Spring sunshine. Eastbourne may only be a small borough council, but it has acquired contemporary architecture of international note.

“I think that what we offer here is a unique combination of contemporary and historic art, all in one venue, all in a very accessible, very welcoming manner,” says Artistic Director Matthew Rowe.

Since the doors opened in April 2009, staff have greeted an estimated 68,000 people. Towner prides itself on the personal touch. In other words, they get by fine without touchscreens.

“The Towner project represents amazing value for money,” says the young curator, pointing to the “tremendous achievement” of Rick Mather Architects.

“The project cost us a total of £8.5 million,” he explains. “The Towner cost £2,100 per square metre. The industry standard is double that. So there are museums being built I think costing £4,000 or £4,500 per square metre.”

Rowe says winning the UK’s largest single arts prize would be “fantastic recognition” and “confirmation of four years of hard labour.”

More importantly, he adds, it wil “enable us to carry on making contemporary and historic art available to all”, bringing international artists of the calibre of Damien Hirst and Bill Viola to the South Coast.

But first there are one or two stars on the Art Fund Prize judging panel who will need impressing. Presenter Kirsty Young, philosopher AC Grayling and artist Jonathan Yeo are among the seven looking for “excellence and innovation”.

What’s more, 11 venues have made it onto the 2010 longlist, compared with the usual 10. Those include the £78 million Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum and the £61 million Ashmolean redevelopment in Oxford.

Four will make it onto a May shortlist with one institution to scoop the honours at a ceremony in London on June 30. What chance does a relatively small gallery from a coastal retirement haven possibly have?

But perhaps things are changing in Eastbourne. It would appear to be from the wealth of local, contemporary art on display in Towner’s East Sussex Open Exhibition.

In one photo a fiery dawn breaks over the town’s fast-fading Victorian pier. Jonathan Webley, whose day job is managing The Grand Hotel, has titled the piece Insomnia. And that is sleepy Eastbourne for you.

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