Contemporary and modern art in the South East: the region's best venues

By Mark Sheerin | 11 June 2010
Photo of a modern gallery facade in a row of townhouses

(Above) Pallant House Gallery, Chichester. Image © Peter Durant/arcblue.com

With more than 300 museums in the South East, it is little surprise to find nearly a dozen major destinations for modern and contemporary art.

Our guide takes you around the region from Bucks to Kent, where three exciting projects are due to come on line in the next couple of years. If you love visual art, it is the county to watch.

Milton Keynes Gallery

With an address like no other, the gallery at 900 Midsummer Boulevard brings 300m2 of exhibition space to this new town’s cultural quarter.

Milton Keynes Gallery opened in 1999 with a Gilbert and George show, drawing 23,000 visitors, and has since gone from strength to strength.

Leading international artists have continued to show their work in the building’s three galleries, with occasional with eye-catching wraps of the cube-like exterior.

A rectangular building covered in colourful mural designs

Richard Woods, Flora & Fauna, (2007) - a temporary wrap in situ at Milton Keynes Gallery. Image courtesy the artist and Milton Keynes Gallery.

Modern Art Oxford

While not as ancient as some institutions in the university city, Modern Art Oxford has been on the block longer than most other spaces for contemporary art.

Since 1965 it has built a national and international reputation for groundbreaking shows, from the likes of Joseph Beuys, Donald Judd and Marina Abramovich.

Meanwhile past directors include Sir Nicholas Serota, now in charge of the Tate. This fact might be one to throw into the conversation as you take tea in the vibrant yard.

Stanley Spencer Museum, Cookham, Berkshire

English painter Stanley Spencer had only been dead for three years when villagers in his native Cookham managed to open a memorial gallery in 1962.

It was Spencer who put the Berkshire village on the map when he painted the local dead returning to life in his sensational work of 1927, The Resurrection Cookham.

So the collection of more than 100 paintings and drawings has found a suitable home in a former Methodist chapel. It is staffed entirely by (living) volunteers.

ArtSway, New Forest, Hampshire

Visitors to the last three Venice Biennales may have been surprised to find a pavilion dedicateed to the New Forest in Hampshire.

But the National Park is firmly on the contemporary art map thanks to a purpose built gallery with links to the University of Bournemouth.

ArtSway holds eight or nine shows a year from the likes of Jordan Baseman and Gayle Chong Kwan. It also houses five studios and runs residencies.

Guests stand around a gallery with a large spherical artwork in foreground

A show preview at Aspex, Portsmouth. Image courtesy the gallery.

Aspex, Portsmouth

Portsmouth’s leading contemporary art space would grace a city twice the size. Aspex has shown work by more than 1,000 emerging artists since 1981.

Local and international names also figure in the roster with five shows in the main gallery each year and a second fast-moving project space.

In 2006 Aspex moved to the Vulcan Building in Gunwharf Keys. The one-time naval storehouse is now an inspiring, if incongruous, setting for art.

John Hansard Gallery, Southampton

In 1980 the University of Southampton brought together a photographic gallery and a fine art gallery into one space in a former laboratory at its Highfield Campus.

A model for measuring tides in the nearby Solent.was ripped out and a programme designed to encourage academic and public debate was installed in its place. Publishing is also on the agenda at this Hampshire gallery.

Pallant House, Chichester

The decision to add a contemporary wing to a Grade I Queen Anne Town House was a controversial triumph in 2006. Pallant is now a successful mix of the new and old.

The £8.6 million project provides a new home for the gallery’s collection of modern art, which features work by Peter Blake, Patrick Caulfield and Richard Hamilton.

Caulfield was also the subject of a touring exhibition. Other recent shows have included The Scottish Colourists and John Tunnard. Recommended.

A terrace street with a modern gallery exterior

Pallant House Gallery, Chichester. Image © Peter Durant/arcblue.com

Fabrica, Brighton

Upon closer inspection, a Regency church building in Brighton city centre reveals itself to be a dramatic, cavernous space for contemporary art.

There are four main shows each year and Fabrica champions site-specific crafts, large scale sculptures, lens based installations and interactive, digital media.

Artists working with the gallery are encouraged to push their boundaries. John Grade, Tina Gonzales and Brian Eno have all risen to the challenge in recent months.

Towner Gallery, Eastbourne

On the face of it, you would not expect to see work by the likes of Damien Hirst or Bill Viola in sleepy Eastbourne.

But thanks to a purpose built gallery at the bargain price of £8.5m the town is waking up to contemporary art. Since April 2009, Towner has welcomed almost 70,000 visitors.

The three-floor Rick Mathers building is now a South Downs landmark, a regional destination, and the last thing you’d expect to find in a seaside resort.

De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill on Sea

Fans of architecture should also be delighted by the nearby De La Warr Pavilion. This is a modernist marvel by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Charnayeff.

Seventy years after completion, the building was renovated in 2005 at a cost of £8m, confirming its original purpose to bring culture and leisure to the people of Bexhill.

Half a million visitors a year now visit the Grade-I listed building, which Mendelsohn called a "horizontal skyscraper". High quality exhibitions make for stunning interiors too.

A striking modernist building in front of a greensward

The De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea. Image courtesy De La Warr Pavilion

Jerwood Gallery, Hastings

The Jerwood Foundation has an art collection in search of a permanent home and some say Hastings is in need of redevelopment. So the town should have a new gallery by summer 2011.

The £4 million development on the Stade in Hastings Old Town promises a major new cultural venue of "regional and national importance".

As well as being undoubtedly charmed by the Foundation’s collection of Modern British painting, the Hastings community will also benefit from the Jerwood foundation's thriving and ever expanding Visual Arts programme.

Folkestone Triennial

For contemporary art of the public variety, Folkestone is the place to be. In 2008 the first Triennial invited a host of international names to respond to the locality.

Tacita Dean, Jeremy Deller and Mark Wallinger all took part. Tracey Emin’s work, Baby Things, remains on show as one of 8 permanent commissions.

22 artists will be invited to contribute to the second Triennial in 2011. At this rate the town will run out of display space.

Ebbsfleet Landmark Project

Several artists competed for the commission to design and build an 'Angel of the South' to rival Anthony Gormley’s statue outside Newcastle.

But it is Mark Wallinger who is busy on the public art project in nearby Ebbsfleet, where a 50m high white horse will become one of the most monumental artworks anywhere in the world.

The £2 million statue will be visible for 20 miles and is planned for completion by 2012, although funding issues have beset the project.

Turner Contemporary, Margate

More exciting construction is underway in North Kent with Turner Contemporary due to open in Margate next year.

Acclaimed British architect David Chipperfield is building a coastal fortress for art at a cost of £17.4 million pounds. It will become one of the largest galleries in the region.

The site once housed a guest house where JMW Turner would often stay. He once remarked that the skies over nearby Thanet were "the loveliest in all Europe."

Whitstable Biennale

Along with a retro, smalltown feel, Whitstable now has a highly contemporary, cosmopolitan arts biennale – note the Italian spelling.

Between June 19 and July 4 2010, they celebrate the festival for the fifth time. Nine new works have been commissioned including a Leah Elsey and Sonia Uddin piece that runs until 2012.

2010 is Year of the Museum in the South East, discover a museum at www.culture24.org.uk/southeast and find out about the Beautiful South at www.visitsoutheastengland.com.

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