Simon Martin

Simon Martin is the Director of Pallant House Gallery. He talks to Art is Alive about the future plans for the space, his favourite artists, the treasures of the gallery’s collection (including Richard Hamilton’s Swingeing London ’67, Michael Andrews’ Thames Painting: The Estuary etc.) and this summer’s exhibition dedicated to Virginia Woolf.

The author of several monographs and exhibition catalogues on Modern British artists including Eduardo Paolozzi, John Piper, Colin Self as well as surveys including ‘Poets in the Landscape: The Romantic Spirit in British Art’ and ‘The Mythic Method: Classicism in British Art 1920-1950’ he is a Trustee of the Charleston Trust and HOUSE Biennial, and on advisory committees including the Courtauld Association Committee; Chichester Cathedral Fabric Advisory Committee and University of Chichester Special Collections and Archives Committee.

As Director of Pallant House Gallery, what’s your biggest challenge: curating exhibitions, acquiring relevant works or making sure people come and return to the museum?

I see my role as Director as providing strategic leadership to our team (with the support of a great board of Trustees) in order to do all of these things, and much else besides. Museums are complex hybrids: businesses that require marketing and nuanced communications, successful catering and retail operations, but also centres for inspiring learning and community engagement, professional care of remarkable artworks and archives, for scholarship and for pleasure and enjoyment. All these elements are interdependent if it’s to be successful: if we continue to present groundbreaking and significant exhibitions they help encourage return visitors, but also they help us build relationships with patrons and collectors who might support us in developing the collection. These days I’m not curating so many exhibitions, but programming and overseeing the curatorial vision for the Gallery.

What’s your main priority and what’s the best part of your role? The strategy you’re implementing at the museum?

Although we are based in Chichester, a small city in West Sussex, UK my vision is for Pallant House Gallery to be recognised internationally as a centre for Modern British art. At the present moment, with Britain having something of a ‘Brexit identity crisis’, I think it is important that we show how British art has been in dialogue with international art and politics. Widening access to the arts is absolutely essential, not only through our learning and community programmes, but through showing little-known artists deserving of greater recognition.

Tell us something we don’t know about the collection of the museum?

We are primarily known for having one of the best public collections of Modern British art, but we also have some unexpected historic treasures in the De’Longhi Print Room, such as a drawing of an eagle by the Renaissance artist Giulio Romano and in 2016 we acquired an exquisite pastel nude by Edgar Degas, which is currently on loan to Denver Art Museum. People often don’t realise the scope of our international collection which includes works by Paul Cézanne, André Derain, Paul Klee, Le Corbusier, Gino Severini, and Sam Francis, amongst others. It’s also unusual for independent museums in the regions to have a dedicated Print Room, an Art Library with over 18,000 books and an Archive with significant holdings (such as all of RB Kitaj’s correspondence with his printmaker Chris Prater of Kelpra Prints). It’s a wonderful resource for students, researchers, our curatorial staff and interested individuals.

What are your views about juxtaposing modern and contemporary art with the collection? Do you think that’s a strong way to present art?

Art is never created in a vacuum and artists think about past art just as much as they look to the future. Surprising juxtapositions can make us look at both the art of the past and the present in different ways. We’ve had a series of bold installations over the last decade in the interiors of the 18th century house, including works by international artists such as Spencer Finch, Nina Saunders, Clare Woods and Des Hughes, Mona Hatoum, Bouke de Vries and currently Pablo Bronstein, whose ‘Wall Pomp’ installation features a wallpaper of vast classical funerary monuments. Artists love working in unusual spaces that provide more context than an empty white cube, but also more traditional audiences can be engaged even though they might not think contemporary art was ‘for them’.

Please select a few highlights in the collection and tell us why they are significant works?

People are often surprised to encounter celebrated works such as Richard Hamilton’s Hers is a Lush Situation or his Swingeing London ’67 in a museum in Chichester. In the recent Tate and Reina Sofia Hamilton retrospective they were hanging alongside major works from MOMA, the Museum Ludwig and the Art Institute of Chicago. We are fortunate to have one of the best collections of British Pop Art in the world, including numerous major works by Peter Blake, Patrick Caulfield, Jann Haworth, Eduardo Paolozzi, RB Kitaj and Joe Tilson, amongst many others. These works are constantly being requested for exhibitions, and last year we lent over 60 works to 19 exhibitions in Britain and internationally.

I think one of the most popular works with our visitors is Michael Andrews’ Thames Painting: The Estuary. It was his final painting, created when he was dying of cancer, and you can almost feel a sense of life passing away in this watery landscape. For me, it was a highlight of the Getty Centre’s London Calling exhibition in 2016, and the Gagosian Gallery’s retrospective of Andrews paintings last year. Our collection is particularly rich in figurative art, from Walter Sickert’s nudes and David Bomberg, to Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, and William Coldstream, but we’re increasingly developing our holdings of abstract art beyond major figures such Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, to others in the St Ives group.

Any treasures in storage that the public doesn’t have access to?

We try to rotate the displays, and have an open painting store/display in our Lecture Room, but usually its conservation reasons that prevent public access. A few years ago we were given an extraordinary fabric sculpture called ‘Sorceress’ by the American Pop artist Jann Haworth. It not been exhibited for around 40 years, but now we are trying to raise the funds to enable our conservators to work with Jann to repair historic moth damage (from before it came to us) so that it can be presented again with other sculptures that we have by her, such as the ‘Cowboy’ that featured in the original line-up of ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band’ and her wonderful ‘Mae West Dressing Table’ which we lit for the first time since the 1960s for our recent exhibition POP: Art in a Changing Britain.

Tell us about the architecture of the museum and what it evokes?

It’s a pretty unique combination of a historic Grade 1-listed Queen Anne townhouse with domestic interiors and a contemporary wing designed by Long and Kentish, in association with Colin St John Wilson, the architect of the British Library. Moving through the Gallery visitors experience contemporary installations in panelled interiors and there is a constant dialogue between past and present. MJ Long had previously designed studios for artists including Frank Auerbach, Peter Blake and RB Kitaj, and so is really attuned to the importance of light and scale for displaying art. Outside, we have a courtyard garden designed by Christopher Bradley-Hole, several times a Gold Medal winner at Chelsea. It’s a pleasure to eat lunch there in summer months, under a canopy of plane trees.

We’ve just bought the original 18th century coach house at the rear of the Gallery, and so our next task is to raise around £5million in order to develop a new Collections Centre for state-of-art-storage, with an expanded library and archive, conservation spaces, seminar room, offices and additional gallery space. We hope we can complete it in time for our 40th anniversary in 2022, and that it will enable us rethink and refresh some of our existing spaces, and also initiate new outreach programmes to areas of low engagement.

New acquisitions for the collection?

We have recently been bequeathed six paintings and drawings by the British artist Keith Vaughan from the playwright Sir Peter Schaffer, who wrote Amadeus and Equus. I curated a centenary exhibition of Vaughan’s work a few years ago, but the bequest came out of the blue as a wonderful surprise, and will enrich our holdings of the artist’s work.

Our recent Pop exhibition has given us an opportunity to acquire an important 1968 portfolio by Gerald Laing called the Baby Baby Wild Things portfolio, including his iconic Brigette Bardot print. The Art Fund has given us £10,000 towards it, and through a public campaign we’ve nearly reached the rest of the total – just a couple of thousand to go! The recent exhibition of Gerald Laing, Sigmar Polke and Roy Lichtenstein at Lévy Gorvy has revealed a new interest in the artist and his work.

Your tastes in modern and contemporary art, who do you look at and like?

On a personal level, my tastes are very eclectic. I collect Modern British prints by artists including John Piper, Peter Blake, Edward Bawden, Edward Burra, John Tunnard and Wyndham Lewis, but I’ve also got sculptures by Phyllida Barlow, and photographs by Tacita Dean and Nan Goldin. I adore folk art, and have a cluttered kitchen dresser filled with British Studio Pottery, and shelves full of illustrated books from the 1930s and 40s.

Recent exhibitions you’ve seen and liked?

I tend to go to a lot of exhibitions and museums, but my tastes are very catholic – as long as the quality is good, it can be contemporary, historic or ancient. Recently I’ve particularly liked a few painting exhibitions: Michael Armitage at the South London Gallery, Nick Goss at Josh Lilley, and Glenn Brown at the Gagosian Gallery. Each of these artists has a nuanced approach to Art History – you can see that they love looking at painters from the past, but they are all highly technically skilled and nuanced, creating images which are completely unique and speak to the present.

I just went to Milan to see the vast exhibition Post Zang Tumb Tuuum: Art Life Politics Italia 1918-1943 at the Fondazione Prada as I’m particularly interested in the complexities of that period of history and politics; but that also gave me a chance to the exhibition on Dürer and the Italian Renaissance and visit the Arturo Martini exhibition in the stunning setting of the Villa Necchi Campiglio (the setting for Luca Guadagnino’s I am Love.)

Future exhibitions at Pallant House Gallery / projects we should be aware of?

This summer we’ll be showing Virginia Woolf: an exhibition inspired by her writings, which tours from Tate St Ives and features around 80 modern and contemporary women artists from Barbara Hepworth and Vanessa Bell to artists such as Linder, Caragh Thuring and Alina Szapocznikow. We’re keen to increase the representation of women artists in our programme, and to shine a light on overlooked aspects of art history. Next year, we have an exhibition entitled Radical Women: Jessica Dismorr and her Circle exploring avant-garde artists in the early-twentieth century, particularly those such as Dismorr who were part of the Vorticist group. But we also have the first major exhibition of the British abstract artist Ivon Hitchens for over forty years, and we planning some exciting contemporary commissions so that the programme has a vital mix.

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Image: Portrait © Alun Callender
Installation images of Pallant House Gallery – Copyright Pallant House Gallery.