Pallant House Gallery in Chichester reopened to the public on 1 July 2006 following a pound;8.6 million building and refurbishment project. In May 2007 it was awarded the Gulbenkian Prize for Museums and Galleries and the accolade of Museum of the Year, and 14 other awards have been given to the Gallery since its reopening.
Such new build and refurbishment projects are not unusual in the United Kingdom, many following in the wake of the UK National Lottery and the creation of new streams of arts and heritage funding in 1993. What makes Pallant House Gallery stand out from the rest is its unique combination of a Grade 1 listed Queen Anne townhouse with a contemporary new wing which houses a world-class collection of British 20th century and contemporary art. The old and new co-exist in a harmonious whole in a way that is rarely seen in the UK but is a much more familiar model on the Continent. This, together with the exciting temporary exhibitions programme and the award-winning learning and community programmes for which we are renowned, make Pallant House Gallery ''A jewel of a gallery'' in the words of Francine Stock, Chair of the Gulbenkian judges in 2007.
Pallant House Gallery first opened in 1982. It came about through the generosity and vision of Walter Hussey, the Dean of Chichester Cathedral who was responsible for some outstanding commissions of contemporary church art that were the inspiration for the post-war rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral.
Hussey's personal collection of modern British art grew out of the friendships he made with artists such as Henry Moore, John Piper, Ceri Richards and Graham Sutherland. In 1977, on the eve of his retirement, he promised his collection to the City of Chichester on the proviso that Pallant House, then used as Council offices, was restored to accommodate it. After the Gallery opened to critical and public acclaim, other gifts of art followed including the Kearley Bequest which contained works by Paul Nash and Ben Nicholson as well as modern masters such as Ceacute;zanne, Leacute;ger, Picasso and Severini.
It soon became apparent that the Gallery was becoming a victim of its own success. Operating out of the Queen Anne townhouse and a small exhibitions gallery consisting of the former Council chamber, only limited access could be given to people using wheelchairs or with other physical disabilities, and there was no dedicated space for holding school and other group workshops. Moreover, with 30% of the collection on display and the promise of another major collection of 20th century British art, the Gallery was beginning to burst at the seams. The idea of building an extension was explored as early as 1993 but it had to wait until 1997 on the appointment of a new Director, Stefan van Raay, to be brought to fruition.
The promised collection was that of Professor Sir Colin St John Wilson, the architect of the British Library, who started to buy the work of his art school contemporaries whilst studying architecture in London in the late 1940s. He and his wife and business partner M J Long had connections with the area surrounding Chichester where they had had a home for many years. Wilson's proposal to gift iconic works of British Pop art amongst others to the Gallery was based on his knowledge of the existing collections and the potential for the space to develop, foreseeing a unique opportunity to become involved in the design of a building to house his works of art. The project went to international tender but the design developed by Wilson in association with Long Kentish proved to be the best solution to the brief.
The brief was for gallery space for the expanding collection and temporary exhibitions, access for all visitors, workshop and studio facilities, a shop and restaurant, sustainability, the best possible environmental care for the collection, accessible open storage, maximum hanging space in combination with natural and artificial lighting, human scale architecture and a clear statement of combining the historic house with a contemporary new wing in a sympathetic dialogue. The design also included a contemporary courtyard garden designed by Christopher Bradley-Hole, multi-award winner of the Chelsea Flower Show. In the process of designing the mechanical and electrical services for the new gallery it was decided to include a geothermal heating and cooling system into the build which would cut the Gallery's carbon emissions by 40-50%. At that time this was only the second application of this technology in the UK and the first for an art gallery or museum.
A Disability and Access Focus Group was established with whom the architects regularly consulted to develop best practice in access provision in all areas of the Gallery''s operations. The Gallery now offers access for all visitors with ground level entry, lifts to all levels, toilet facilities for those with disabilities, hearing loops and tactile resources, supported with a training programme in disability awareness for all staff. As a result the Gallery was awarded an ADAPT Trust ''Excellence in Access'' award.
The fact that the new building was to be sited in the heart of a densely built conservation area in an historic cathedral city perhaps presented the project with its biggest challenge. Letters of opposition and support were published on almost a weekly basis in the pages of the local paper in the months leading up to the planning decision. The design of the front faccedil;ade changed three times before planning permission was obtained with the approval of English Heritage and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, although other conservation and heritage societies continued to withhold their support.
Building work started at the beginning of 2003 but the anticipated opening in 2004 was delayed due to unforeseen problems with the foundations and walls of the existing house. The Gallery closed in August 2003 and for nearly three years had to keep its presence alive through an external exhibitions and learning and community programme. The membership of the Friends of Pallant House hardly declined during this period due to the ongoing production of the Gallery's quarterly magazine and a programme of events and social gatherings. Similarly the workforce of 250 volunteers who, together with the 26 member of staff, are vital to the running of the Gallery was kept engaged by training events and update meetings which ran every month during closure.
Another major challenge was to raise funds for both the building project and an endowment fund for the Gallery's future security. pound;8.6 million was secured for the building project through the Heritage Lottery Fund, donations from individuals, trusts and foundations, the Friends of Pallant House and funds from the local authorities and Arts Council England. At the same time, a pound;1.5 million donation was secured for an endowment fund to contribute to the future running costs. This was achieved by a small team of staff and volunteers, most of whom had not had previous experience of raising money on this scale.
The Gallery and the redecorated and refurbished historic house received over 66,000 visitors from all over the UK and abroad in the first year including schoolchildren, young people, groups and people with disabilities. Over 2,000 new Friends have signed up since re-opening, now totalling over 3,500 Friends. There is a revolving programme of three major temporary exhibitions a year, contemporary art installations and smaller Prints Room and in-focus exhibitions highlighting the collection. At any one time there are four elements present in the gallery - national, international, historic and contemporary art.
The learning and community programme offers some of the most pioneering arts access projects in the country including the celebrated Partners in Art scheme which partners people who, for reasons such as disability, illness or injury, have difficulties in accessing the arts, the Gallery and their local community with a trained volunteer. The recently launched Outside In project celebrates the work of those who consider themselves ''outsider artists''. The Gallery has also initiated some important outreach projects including Identity, working with local refugee groups to encourage access to the arts, and Significant Objects which has involved asylum seekers, prisoners, looked-after children, a house-bound readers group and school children. The Gallery also runs training programmes involving artist/educators and voluntary guides enabling them to lead tours to visitors of all ages. Arts Council England, South East has said ''the Gallery''s education and outreach programme is an example of outstanding inclusive practice: instilling real value in the lives of those disabled and disenfranchised communities it connects with.''
Pallant House Gallery is now a major tourist attraction, not only for the south of England but for the whole country. It is an inspiring and stimulating Gallery that has created many new opportunities for Chichester and its local community, and has developed the cultural heritage of the City for future generations to enjoy.
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