So many reasons to celebrate as Chichester's Pallant House Gallery marks 40 years

In just four decades Chichester’s Pallant House Gallery has built a remarkable national and international reputation, “second only to the Tate for modern British art”, as one national newspaper put it.

Pallant House director Simon Martin
Pallant House director Simon Martin

Through an ambitious programme of exhibitions and creative opportunities for all, Pallant House Gallery has – since 1982 – explored new perspectives on British art from 1900 to the present day, making it all the more relevant by exploring its contemporary, historic and international connections.

Having now survived the pandemic and adapted imaginatively to changing demands, it’s a gallery which has certainly earnt the right to celebrate – a gallery which is in great good heart as it marks its 40th year of existence, one of a number of significant Chichester anniversaries in 2022.

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Close by, Chichester Festival Theatre is celebrating its 60th anniversary; the Festival of Chichester is offering its tenth festival; the year also sees 30 years of the Chichester Cinema at New Park’s international film festival, ten years of The Novium Museum and 200 years of the Canal Trust.

All the anniversaries are being marked together through the district-wide Culture Spark initiative. Pallant House Gallery, along with Chichester Festival Theatre and Chichester District Council, were the Culture Spark igniters.

Pallant House Gallery director Simon Martin is delighted to have helped lead the charge: “The 40th anniversary is such a key date for us when you think back to the first idea in the 1960s and some of the letters by Walter Hussey about Chichester having a modern art gallery. Some people didn’t think it was something that the city needed but great individuals like Philip Stroud set up the Friends and it happened, and I think we’re almost unique in being a museum and art gallery where the Friends came first before the gallery!

“The groundswell to support the idea and to help raise the funds to restore Pallant House was fantastic. The building is owned by the District Council and it has been a unique partnership that we have enjoyed with them over the years.

“One of the things about anniversaries though is that you can’t be too complacent when you look at your successes. Fortunately we have had lots of successes but this is also about looking to the future,” says Simon who is actually celebrating his own Pallant House anniversary this year having joined the staff as an assistant curator 20 years ago. Rather neatly he has been there for exactly half the gallery’s existence.

“At that point in 2002 the gallery was already a very well-established organisation and it was just before all the work on the new wing began and I think since then we have really developed our sense of identity and our sense of purpose and our reputation has spread nationally and also internationally as a centre for British art.”

A measure of that is the way it attracts people from London: “Chichester has got a remarkable collection of cultural institutions that, it is often said, punch above their weight and we have had great support from the Friends, the Arts Council and Chichester District Council. But we also have an extraordinary team of volunteers. I know a lot of people at galleries around the country but very few have the number of dedicated volunteers that we have. We have something like 200 volunteers doing dedicated tasks and I think that shows such a lot about the people of Chichester and the way they want to support what we do. It shows that they recognise our value as an art gallery. And it is these people that we should be celebrating with the anniversary.”

Also remarkable is the gallery’s collection: “Over 40 years we have developed a collection of nearly 5,000 items which is an incredible number for a relatively short history compared to a lot of much longer founded galleries. Almost every item we have got has been given or has been bequeathed. We also have some things that are on long-term loan to us, but what it shows us is the great level of philanthropy people have demonstrated to the gallery.”

The pandemic has also underlined the gallery’s strength: “In terms of the pandemic, as with every organisation, it has been very difficult for us. Fortunately we were able to furlough 28 members of staff and we received some government funding in one of the rounds and that meant that we were able to keep going. Even when we were closed we kept up on digital content. In 2020 our exhibition from August through to October reached 13,000 visitors even with lower numbers of visitors allowed and reduced hours. What it did do, at a time when so many shows had to be cancelled, was to give us a chance to look at our permanent collection. It made us realise what a remarkable asset that permanent collection is. The pandemic has made us think much more deeply about it.

“So in a way there were some positives coming out of the pandemic. I think also that the staff have been remarkable throughout. I think it has really clarified those things that we want to do and I think it has also made us realise quite how much people value us. During the pandemic we reached audiences much further afield through our digital work with the curatorial team giving talks on Zoom. The challenge now is to find a hybrid as we go forward.”

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