Major Sussex art gallery lauds spirit of co-operation amid the shutdown

Simon Martin, director of Chichester’s Pallant House Gallery, is finding plenty of encouragement in the spirit of co-operation which is so clearly abroad in these deeply troubling times.

Simon Martin, director of Chichesters Pallant House Gallery
Simon Martin, director of Chichesters Pallant House Gallery

“You have got to be positive because the alternative is too bad to think about,” Simon says, “but what I think is very, very positive is that everyone is being so supportive to each other.

“If nothing else, I think this really does bring out the best in people.”

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It also makes us appreciate all the things we cannot enjoy directly, in person right now – which is why Pallant House is exploring more and more ways to use its website and social media plus email bulletins to stay in touch with art-lovers.

As Simon says, he finds himself in the bizarre position of running effectively a virtual art gallery from his living room. But he is confident he and his team will be able to keep up high levels of engagement with a public deprived of art in a real-life gallery.

There’s no denying the timing of the closure was cruel, just as the gallery was opening its spring season.

Fortunately the week before, the gallery had already been considering its options in the worsening crisis. In the event, they decided to cancel their private view the day before: “We decided we could not go ahead with an event which had 300 people, particularly given our demographic in that we have a lot of older people.

“It was terribly sad. All the staff, all the volunteers, all the lenders, all of them look forward to a private view, and it was very sad to open the exhibition without that moment of celebration. But the next day the gallery was very busy, with a lot of people wanting to see the exhibition before any possible lockdown. Then on the Monday we decided it was looking very likely that we were going to have to close and that we should act out our plans.

“Obviously we had to make sure that all the security systems were in place and all the environmental controls were there. Even if the public isn’t coming in, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t still a lot that has to happen.”

Then thoughts started to turn to the gallery’s key role in the community, something Simon and the team are proud of: “We have got a very active community programme, and we are particularly concerned with the impact of social isolation and also with how the gallery and its collections remain relevant to people and their lives when they can’t physically visit it.

“We have been thinking about the things we have done already. We can’t suddenly produce masses of films, but we can provide online articles and recordings and films that we have already done. And we are trying to do a weekly ebulletin that people can sign up to on the website.”

The point is that art really matters – and arguably matters even more in these horrible times: “There is a lot of anxiety, and people are looking for solace. They have time on their hands suddenly, and if people look at the news, there is a relentless stream of largely negative stories. It is very easy to descend into a spiral of worry, so if we can, through Instagram and our website, provide ideas about creativity, then that has to be a good thing. If we can inspire people to pick up a book or to make something with their children or for themselves, then that can certainly help.

“We are extremely lucky with the gallery to have a remarkable collection of our own. There are lots of places that just don’t have a collection, and that makes it really difficult for them, but here we have a great resource, and there is a lot we can do online.

“We change our displays around regularly in the gallery to encourage people come back, but the collection is constantly growing. People do leave things to us, which means there is always pressure for space.”

The website will be vital. Simon is also hoping that this could also prove a time when the gallery might find ways to connect with people who have never been to the gallery at all… all leading up to a happy reopening.

Simon’s hope is that the gallery’s spring season might yet become their summer programme if the restrictions are lifted in time.

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