In 2004, when Miriam Wilkinson moved from London to Eastbourne, on England’s southeast coast, the seaside town was often referred to as “God’s waiting room” because of its aging population. But in the last few years, there had been “an awakening” in Eastbourne, said Wilkinson, 40, who works at a nonprofit. Young families were arriving, she added, and new public art was appearing in the streets.
Now, one of Britain’s most important art events, the Turner Prize, has arrived in the town, too, at the Towner Eastbourne art museum. Locals are hoping it will change the town’s reputation and place it on a national, or even global, cultural stage.
But as shown by the experiences of other English seaside towns, big-city culture often dovetails with an influx of new residents, and concerns about gentrification and unfairly shared benefits often follow.
The annual Turner Prize and the accompanying exhibition of the shortlisted artists’ work celebrate the best of contemporary art in Britain. Often landing with a dose of controversy, the prize is one of the few events that transcends the art-world bubble and infiltrates public consciousness. This year’s winner will be chosen from four nominees — Jesse Darling, Ghislaine Leung, Rory Pilgrim and Barbara Walker — by a panel of judges and announced in a ceremony in Eastbourne on Dec. 5. (The exhibition at Towner Eastbourne runs through April 14, 2024.)
Organized by Tate Britain, a part of the Tate museum group, the Turner Prize was once a mainstay of the London art calendar, but in recent years it has been staged in art venues outside the capital.
“We want to bring the art directly to where people are,” said Alex Farquharson, Tate Britain’s director and a Turner Prize co-chair, “so that it benefits the whole country.” The show could be “a teenager’s first exposure to really cutting-edge art,” he said, “and we know that can have a legacy.”
Visitors viewing works in the Turner Prize exhibition at Towner Eastbourne. Clockwise from top left: “Gorgon (Britannia),” by Jesse Darling; works from Barbara Walker’s “Burden of Proof” series; “Public Sculpture,” by Ghislaine Leung; and “Rafts” by Rory Pilgrim.Credit…Jeremie Souteyrat for The New York Times
This year, Eastbourne was a surprising choice. The town — a popular vacation spot in the Victorian era, now dotted with retirement complexes and nursing homes — has struggled with its unkind nickname “for a long time,” said Chris Connelley, an arts official in the town hall, which has partnered with Towner Eastbourne and the regional government on an extended cultural program running concurrently with the Turner Prize. Called Eastbourne Alive, it includes art installations and exhibitions around town.
Connelley said the arrival of the Turner Prize was an opportunity to project a “contemporary image” of Eastbourne and attract new visitors and residents.
Over the last two decades, England’s seaside towns have been turning to the arts to transform their fortunes. Once buoyed by domestic tourism, the economies of many became sluggish in the 1970s with the rise of cheap foreign travel.
Loretta Lees, a professor of sociology at Boston University, said that under the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair, in the late 1990s, culture came to be seen as an “economic engine” that could decrease unemployment, reduce health disparities and improve social inclusion in deprived areas. As the 2000s began, new art venues and events were established to revitalize towns and cities.
In three seaside towns near London — Folkestone, Margate and Hastings — the transformations have been distinct. In 2008, the Folkestone Triennial arts festival was inaugurated, and the town now boasts a colorfully painted district called the Cultural Quarter. In 2011, the $29-million Turner Contemporary exhibition space opened in Margate, one of the most socioeconomically deprived districts in England. (Turner Contemporary hosted the Turner Prize in 2019.) In Hastings, another town with high poverty levels, the Hastings Contemporary art space started up in 2012.
More and more Londoners have been relocating to the towns, attracted by relatively affordable housing and these expanding cultural scenes. It’s a familiar story: Increasingly unaffordable housing in major metropolitan centers — New York and San Francisco, as well as Sydney, Australia — has driven people to relocate to places where space isn’t at such a premium, a trend accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic and an increase in remote working. (An analysis by The Times showed that, in the United States, the pandemic triggered moves from big cities to coastal vacation towns such as Ocean City, N.J., and Cape Cod, Mass.)
Such changes can have unintended consequences. In Margate, average house prices more than doubled between 2012 and 2022, according to the property website Rightmove, and a spike in summer Airbnb rentals has contributed to a deepening housing crisis in the town, leading to protests from local community groups. Hastings is experiencing similar problems and some Folkstone residents are campaigning to block a luxury development in one of the town’s poorest neighborhoods, complaining that locals can’t afford the properties.
Connelley, the Eastbourne arts official, said that cultural regeneration activities in the town aimed to involve the broadest swath of the population. That’s why the town was supporting local projects while hosting the Turner Prize, he said, rather than just “airlifting in the fashionable.”
Eastbourne-based groups like Devonshire Collective are working to involve local people and creating art projects “that celebrate the people that live here,” said Edward Ball, the organization’s director. “You can’t take it for granted that everyone here knows what the Turner Prize is, and if they do, if they care,” he added.
Devonshire Collective hosts free art workshops for young people and consulted attendees when planning public art works for Eastbourne Alive. “We’re trying to commission work that is in conversation with people who are here, and not just impose an artwork somewhere,” Ball said.
For one piece, a seafront mural called “Love, Empathy, Respect, Dignity,” the artist Nadina Ali collaborated with young people in choosing the titular slogan.
Connelly said the idea was to make art a part of daily life in Eastbourne, and that the Turner Prize had been the catalyst. “The decision by Tate,” he said, “to effectively invest in Eastbourne as their host this year was epic.”