With Bexhill’s iconic De La Warr Pavilion granted a transformative £17m in Levelling Up funding, the art centre’s Director and CEO, Stewart Drew, talks about its vital place in the community

Dazzling Bexhill’s seafront since 1935, the De La Warr Pavilion was designed from the outset as a ‘People’s Palace’ for the townsfolk of Bexhill, just as much for day-trippers and holidaymakers to enjoy, too.

In its time, the De La Warr has drawn some of the biggest performers on the planet, from Jamaican musician Bob Marley’s first UK gig in 1972 to Cliff Richard, Spike Milligan and Paul Simon. Indeed, at its height, just before the pandemic struck in 2019/20, the Pavilion drew 420,000 annual visitors from Bexhill and beyond.

Great British Life: The Art Deco building was always beautiful but underfunded. Photo: Bridget SmithThe Art Deco building was always beautiful but underfunded. Photo: Bridget Smith

From the outset, though, the De La Warr has been wildly underfunded, with the original 1930s plans set out by architects Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff never quite fulfilled. The Pavilion’s Director and CEO since 2012, Stewart Drew, reveals: ‘The original plans in 1935 also had a hotel, a cinema and a lido, but there was never enough money to deliver on those things.’

During the latter part of the 20th century, with a continued lack of investment, the Pavilion was becoming dangerously close to demolition. Owned by Rother District Council, this historic landmark was even considered for repurposing as a Wetherspoons pub.

‘I should add that the Council has always been very visionary. The Pavilion is a 1930s Pre-War building, right by the sea, so it's incredibly difficult to manage,’ says Stewart. ‘And it was just sucking millions and millions of taxpayers' money from the Local Authority at that point. It was becoming semi-at-risk and semi-derelict.

Great British Life: The brilliant white Art Deco building makes a statement by the sea. Getty The brilliant white Art Deco building makes a statement by the sea. Getty

‘Thankfully, the building secured Lottery and some other funding [in 2005], with £8.5million investment into the building, based on a visual arts model. This was off the back of the likes of Tate St Ives, the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead and those kinds of institutions that were happening at that time.

‘In 2005, [the De La Warr] was really an £18-million project, but it ended up being delivered for just £8.5 million. So just like in 1935, huge swathes [of the programme] were cost-engineered out.’

The reopening of the De La Warr Pavilion coincided with a slew of new seaside art institutions, though visual arts were largely untested in the southeast of England at this time. ‘The De La Warr Pavilion was almost a trigger for change,’ explains Stewart. ‘Once we'd reopened, the new Towner in Eastbourne, and Hastings Contemporary all opened with this incredible chain of investment by Arts Council England and local authorities in the southeast.’

Great British Life: The DWLP showcases local, national and international artThe DWLP showcases local, national and international art

A community asset

The £17m from the government’s Levelling Up Fund will be going towards building works and ‘to unlock creativity and skills’ — essentially empowering the local community through work, upskilling and learning opportunities.

In addition to the £17m for the seafront building, Sidley, an area of high deprivation on the outskirts of Bexhill, has been awarded £2m for a new community space.

‘One of the reasons I think we've been successful with the Levelling Up funding is because of Sidley. We try to have a genuine, authentic relationship with those communities as much as we can,’ says Stewart.

‘We've got communities [in Bexhill] where life expectancy is seven years less than elsewhere in East Sussex. Earnings are considerably lower and there's a lot of single-parent families, so we are continually pushing to work on the relationships with those communities.’

Great British Life: Stewart Drew Stewart Drew

The Pavilion’s Learning programme is responsive to community needs, with regular activities for families, children, schools and young people and those from a low socio-economic background. The De La Warr also works with the Holiday Food and Fun scheme to run creative workshops during the school holidays for children and families who benefit from free school meals in partnership with Create Music and Bexhill Museum.

‘It's also about trying to give a voice to other communities - Refugees and Black communities to make sure that we have a role in that,’ Stewart adds.

The Pavilion provides free space for weekly meet ups for Ukrainian refugees through the Bexhill Supports Ukraine initiative, while free English Language lessons are offered to Syrian Refugees through the Syrian Resettlement Programme. The De La Warr is working with young refugee artists as part of a project that culminates in an open studio as part of Refugee Week 2023 (19 – 25 June) while it ran the Up In Arms exhibition earlier this year featuring women of colour from the local area, led by Anna Maria Nabirye, founder of the creative hub Afri-Co-Lab in St Leonards.

If you’ve wandered along this swathe of seafront recently, you may have spotted Seated, a public sculpture of a Black woman looking out to sea by New York-based artist Tschabalala Self, which is on display until 23 October. The De La Warr excels in bringing these exciting national and international artists to Bexhill, while advocating local artists, too. This year saw the Bexhill Artists’ Workspace — a group of local artists and creatives — celebrate 25 years of exhibiting at the Pavilion.

Great British Life: Richard Wilson's tongue-in-cheek installation made the DLWP the talk of the townRichard Wilson's tongue-in-cheek installation made the DLWP the talk of the town

An electrifying programme

Since the De La Warr does not own an art collection (its art programme is entirely made up of temporary exhibitions), shows have the scope to be slightly edgier. Stewart explains:

‘We try to engage with people through things like a big [Andy] Warhol show [it held the Warhol Is Here exhibition in 2011-2012] or the Welsh artist Cerith Wyn Evans or the big sculptural commission with Holly Hendry. There's lots of public art commissioning, too, which has all been incredibly strong and vibrant."

Back in 2012, when Britain was basking in the London Olympics and The Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations, the De La Warr experienced a watershed moment. A public art installation saw a full-sized replica motorcoach balanced on the edge of the building's roof. The commission, Hang on a Minute Lads, I’ve Got a Great Idea! by renowned British sculptor Richard Wilson, was based on the final scene in The Italian Job and part of the Cultural Olympiad.

‘The Richard Wilson commission was a visual arts project with enormous integrity that was also slightly tongue-in-cheek,’ says Stewart. ‘It was supported by our patron Eddie Izzard (the British writer, activist, stand-up comedian and actor) and it had that wow factor.’

Great British Life: Eddie Izzard is a patron of DWLP. Photo: Alamy Eddie Izzard is a patron of DWLP. Photo: Alamy

Izzard has close ties to Bexhill. His father is from Sidley, where his grandparents started a community centre in around 1949. Izzard himself worked at the De La Warr Pavilion’s café when he was younger and later performed there.

The De La Warr and Wilson had been in talks for some time about a joint project that would disrupt the outside of the building with Arts Council England and Izzard mostly co-funding the Hang on a Minute Lads…project.

‘It got people stopping in the street, especially as it was facing the town. It signalled a change for us because we were literally, to coin a phrase, waving at our community. And that tongue-in-cheek edge helps to break down barriers,’ says Stewart.

Before that, in 2010, the rooftop was used as the setting for a compelling Sir Antony Gormley installation, Critical Mass, featuring 60 life-size cast-iron bodies. Bringing the famed British sculptor’s work to Bexhill again reinforced the De La Warr’s position as one of the country’s leading centres for art and culture.

Great British Life: The £17m funding will go on building worksThe £17m funding will go on building works

This summer will see the all-female Colours Festival take place on the seafront lawns on 24 June. The festival is being headlined by US-based Weyes (pronounced Wize), Blood who is performing at Glastonbury Festival that same weekend. Brighton band Porridge Radio, plus British artists The Big Moon and Katy J Pearson are the supporting acts .

Ocean Colour Scene, Soul II Soul, The Waterboys and Sophie Ellis-Bextor are also on this year’s music schedule. ‘I am incredibly proud of the music programme that we've built up, from nothing to being at a point that we've got major artists doing Glastonbury warmups [here],’ says Stewart .

Bexfest, a music festival held on the Terrace & West Lawn, returns on 1 July with live music, while British sculptural artist Katie Cuddon’s Night Portraits exhibition takes over the gallery from 10 June to 3 September. Concurrent to this, Iraqi artist Mohammed Sami’s first institutional solo show in the UK, The Point 0, exploring memory in relation to time and conflict, will run in the ground floor gallery until 28 August.

The exhibitions and many of the workshops are free, as is the De La Warr’s extraordinary architecture and the soothing sea views.

‘It feels like my purpose in life to make sure the Pavilion gets the correct investment,’ Stewart says. ‘It's a significant international building for our community and our audiences, so to get that right will mean by 2035 there can be a big party to celebrate the Pavilion's centenary… maybe we will build that lido.’