Leading UK Gallery in ‘Jeopardy’ as Towner Faces 50 Percent Funding Cut

The flagship gallery on the south coast of England is a Tate partner and among the institutions backed by Arts Council England.

Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne. Photo by Julian Osley, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

One of the UK’s top regional galleries is bracing itself as a proposed 50 percent cut in the grant from its core funder, Eastbourne Borough Council, is decided by local politicians tonight, Wednesday December 13. The vote could mean that its around £614,000 a year is slashed, putting its future in jeopardy. 

The Towner gallery is among the “national portfolio organizations” of Arts Council England, which means it receives some money via the arts council from central government. It is also one of 35 Plus Tate partners across the UK.

The gallery moved into an award-winning new home designed by the late London-based, US-born architect Rick Mathers in 2009. It was best known for its 5,000-strong collection of modern British art, including works by David Bomberg, Christopher Wood, and Walter Sickert, but since its move, it has been showing works by leading contemporary artists, including Tacita Dean, Omer Fast, Iván Navarro, and Olafur Eliasson.

The Towner, like several galleries formerly managed by their local authority, became an independent charitable trust chaired by British broadcaster and journalist David Dimbleby in 2014. The council remains a core funder.

“Eastbourne Borough Council is proposing cuts that jeopardize the future of a critically acclaimed and popular arts organization, which attracts nearly 150,000 visitors a year,” Dimbley says in a statement. “Towner has played a central role in the cultural and social life of the town, the surrounding area and further afield, for nearly 100 years,” he added. “We could lose six out of ten exhibitions a year, as well as our award-winning learning program, putting at risk everything that Towner stands for.”

For its part, the council blames the proposed cuts on a reduction in government funding to the region. The proposed cuts were announced in May. In July, the Towner’s director Emma Morris, who described the cuts as potentially “catastrophic” stepped down from her position, leaving the gallery to be led by an acting director, Niamh Pearce.

Eastbourne’s current investment covers Towner’s exhibition and education program, as well as maintenance of the building and its permanent collection. If the proposal is approved, this will be reduced by £200,000 in April 2018, and then in increments towards reaching the 50 percent disinvestment within 4 years, with no guarantees of further funding beyond that.

Left with just half of the council’s grant, the gallery will just have enough to maintain the building and collection, leaving its learning and exhibition programs to the wayside. Last year, the gallery organized activities enjoyed by more than 10,000 people, including 8,000 children from Eastbourne and across East Sussex and 70 schools, as well as various vulnerable groups.

Towner also employs 37 staff and contributes substantially to the region’s visitor economy; a 2014 Tate Plus survey found there to be an annual turnover of £1.2 million from Towner visitors’ additional spending in the area.

Towner receives funding from a number of sources; 22 percent of its income is self-generated, and Arts Council England also funds the gallery through its National Portfolio program. In a small relief for the gallery, ACE renewed their funding at a standstill level for 2018 to 2022 and will invest nearly £1.5 million in that period.

There has been talk of a possible funding partnership along the lines of the New Art Gallery in Walsall’s £3.5 million agreement with ACE, but Towner gallery did not immediately respond to our request for comment on the matter.

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