In the past six months, three new directors have arrived at the South Coast’s major galleries.

Towner in Eastbourne, Pallant House Gallery in Chichester and De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill have all had management reshuffles.

The three contemporary galleries and arts spaces – together with new buildings in Hastings (Jerwood Gallery) and further round the coast in Margate (Turner Contemporary) – make up a cultural “string of pearls” for the region.

“There has been a lot of investment in culture and visual arts in the past ten years and we provide the stepping stones along the South Coast for cultural tourists,” says the man in charge at De La Warr Pavilion, Stuart Drew.

Two weeks ago Towner, De La Warr Pavilion and Jerwood Gallery launched a Coastal Culture Trail. Its aim is to highlight their connections and to demonstrate they are the shiny jewels they claim to be.

A weekend of events included late openings and behind-the-scenes tours. The organisations collaborated to allow visitors to take in all three spaces as part of a cultural mini-break.

When the Royal Institute of British Architects awarded the Jerwood Gallery an RIBA National Award and South East Award for its “unmistakable gravitas” yesterday, it confirmed the pearls as eye-catching.

“We are a critical mass in this area,” says Drew.

“The idea is to create an alternative to London, where people can go to the Tate, The Royal Festival Hall, on to The National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery in one go.

“Down here, people can do all three spaces in a day or a weekend and follow on to Brighton and Chichester.”

Drew joined the De La Warr in 2005. He was appointed acting director in October 2011 following the death of the visionary director Alan Haydon, whose strategy was to give people on the South Coast a world-class visual arts space.

“Before 2005, everyone would get on a train and go to London,” says Drew, speaking from Bexhill.

“Now we have world-class art facilities on the South Coast, which is not only retaining tourists from the region but also dragging people from London and from further afield – before it would have been the other way round.”

A former colleague of Drew’s from De La Warr has taken over at Eastbourne’s £8.5 million Towner art museum, where a 4,000-strong permanent collection includes many keys works by Sussex painter Eric Ravilious (1903-1942).

Emma Morris started in January. Before taking the reins in Eastbourne, she was director of Brighton’s Photoworks and merged the organisation with Brighton Photo Biennial.

West of Brighton, at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, an American named Gregory Perry took over in February.

He had previously worked at the National Gallery in London, the Allentown Art Museum in Pennsylvania and Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum in New Jersey.

The pressing issue for all three directors is funding cuts.

“There is less money than there was,” says Morris. “And that has always been the big question of this explosion of infrastructure for the arts – not just in the South East but in the whole country. It never came with any additional money to run the buildings.

“Now we are in the grip of a recession and the Arts Council budget has been severely cut and may be again.”

Central government – through the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Arts Council – has been snipping away with cuts of between 1% and 3%.

Gallery directors fear that the upcoming round of cuts, due in the next few weeks, will be significantly higher. There is talk of budgets being slashed by 15%.

In Maria Miller’s first speech as Culture Secretary, she said the arts must prove their economic impact and value.

Government cuts

“That was quite demoralising,” adds Morris. “We have been doing that for years backed up by some pretty impressive statistics. But, of course, if you gave the investment given to the arts to commerce, they would make far more money.”

Arts can be intangible, immeasurable, often wrapped up in elitist language and thus “difficult to put forward as an argument about why we need arts as a civilised society”.

“We need to make money and have that economic value,” continues Morris, “but I would be very worried if that’s what the value of arts came down to and that is how we were measured.”

All three directors have long worked in creative spaces but have been employed most recently for their administration skills. That is no coincidence.

“Certainly Stewart and I are not artistic directors from a curatorial background” says Morris. “My skills are on the business side: finance, operational, commercial, fundraising.”

She admits to hearing moaning on the grapevine. “‘Oh, not another high-level administrator taking a top job’, they said, but what is important about the three of us is we are all passionate about art, audiences and making our venues really successful.”

At Towner, the existing programming team will take responsibility for the artistic side – be that visual arts or, as they are increasingly doing, music events, workshops and tours.

Nothing is ever set in stone, though. In five years’ time the Towner Trust may decide it wants an artistic director.

“We have a programme for the next two years but I am interested in looking at other models, working with a pool of creatives, bringing people in as and when we need them, working with an artist as an associate for a year or so.

“It might be interesting to have a writer as an associate to bring in different ideas and energies, a bit like the model Brighton Festival uses but not on the same scale.”

Stewart Drew at De La Warr calls the modernist icon a big draw and compares it to a permanent collection. He says his role is to “make sure the business model is robust”.

He believes the changes stop organisations being “bloated” and “makes you more fleet of foot and resourceful”.

“It’s a changing climate, a new era and it just so happens you are seeing it in the visual arts sector with more administrative professionals in senior roles.”

Pallant House Gallery is a different space: the permanent collection is bigger; it focuses on British modern art; its shows are larger.

Perry admits his skill for fundraising helped him into the top job but is keen to outline his curatorial background, degree and master’s in art history.

“Regardless of what background you come from, the programming has to come first and everything follows. That is the foundation of everything you do.”

He says the problem for smaller galleries is that cuts are felt harder.

“If you are the National Gallery and you have a budget of £30 million then a 15% cut in government funding is easier to absorb.

“A 15% cut to our budget by the Arts Council would be more of a challenge. We have fewer staff. It’s a bigger impact.”

All agree the funding gap needs to be filled in other ways. More than 80% of philanthropy to the arts is given to organisations in London.

“There has been a real focus coming from DCMS for arts organisations to maximise individual philanthropy,” says Morris.

“While I don’t disagree with that, there are some tough stats.

“It’s a much bigger ask for arts organisations in the regions than it is for the big boys in London and in larger cities.”

Culture secretary Maria Miller said she wants a funding model for galleries somewhere between Europe and America.

A lean towards the American model, heavily dependent on philanthropy, looks likely, thinks Perry.

“They are looking for a model where we rely less on government support and more on private support, where we should focus on building our endowments.

“These are ideas that have had to develop in America because government support for art institutions is very low. Now we are all faced with this in the UK.”

The challenge here is that there isn’t yet a culture of giving to cultural institutions.

In the US, it’s well-known an arts institution may get only 3% of its funding through competitive grants.

“There is tremendous generosity in this country,” says Perry, “but because institutions get government support, people aren’t used to the kind of giving they are used to in the US.”

The UK government is moving the funding goalposts but not helping to change the culture.

“That is something that falls on the institutions,” says Perry.

He thinks tax laws have to change if the government expects the giving culture to change.

“The tax benefits for giving are more generous in the US. It helps not-for-profits generate more money.”

Pallant House is a trust. De La Warr is also separated from its local authority. Under former director Alan Haydon it became the De La Warr Pavilion Charitable Trust.

Emma Morris worked on that project with Stewart Drew when they were both lower in the ranks at De La Warr.

Working together

Morris has been brought into Towner to transfer the collection and space from Eastbourne Borough Council to a charitable trust this year.

She says fundraising is easier as an independent organisation – with the emphasis on individual giving and philanthropy.

“When people say, ‘Who do I make the cheque out to?’ and you say, ‘Eastbourne Borough Council’, they think, ‘Hold on, I already pay my taxes’.”

What effect might this have on the exhibitions and artistic programme?

“We have that planned for the next two years, so that is not set to change yet.

“And I don’t think there will be any significant changes. Perhaps you might notice there is more of a commercial bent to the organisation. Perhaps the staff will encourage visitors to make donations, be up-selling in the shop.”

That might not be the case at Pallant House, which has built a strong reputation for bringing lesser-known but no less interesting artists to its audience.

“When you are working on a model, say in the US, where you rely so much on ticket income, it’s going to drive the programming so people are given a steady diet of things they already know,” says Morris.

Government support provides the stability to say “this is a worthwhile artist or topic to present. It may not draw as much as something more popular, but we want to share this with people.”

Though Morris recognises there are plenty of wealthy individuals in Sussex, she admits convincing them to part with their money is a different proposition.

“It’s about recognising that it takes long-term investment and it’s not going to happen in 12 months. We talk about legacies and it could be ten or 20 years before we see any money coming through. It is not a quick fix.”

There are, of course, other ways to deal with funding cuts. Patrons such as Eddie Izzard at De La Warr and its president the Duchess of Cornwall have been vocal supporters and pledged more than money.

That there are so many galleries in close proximity is another boon.

“It’s up to all of us to look at how we can work together more collaboratively and share resources in a meaningful way.” says Morris.

“These buildings cost a lot of money to run and we have not looked at where there may be savings – say procurement of energy or back office facilities.”

Efficiency savings is normally shorthand for job losses.

“It may create more jobs,” she replies. “Who knows?”

The Towner could also start charging an entrance fee.

“We currently charge for one show a year. I would personally resist charging for as long as possible. When you are publicly funded, there is the argument that you’ve already had public money.”

Accessibility is another watchword.

“A charge is an immediate barrier. Also, the downside of charging is you may see a reduced number of people coming to the building therefore reduced spend in the building.”

Gloomy times or good times, the debate about a world-class art space for Brighton is never far from arts aficionados’ lips.

Indeed, the Green Party declared in its manifesto for 2011 to 2015 it would “continue to campaign for a city art gallery”.

A large-scale environmentally-controlled gallery space in Brighton would be supported by all three directors.

Perry says conjecture is just that, but the others are doing so well “it seems the more institutions we have the better”.

Drew says it would “complement the provision”.

Morris believes Brighton has always leaned towards theatre, dance or music rather than visual arts.

But Brighton Festival has developed its visual arts offering and there is the Artists’ Open Houses, Fabrica, Photoworks, Phoenix Gallery, Brighton and Hove Museums, plus new commercial galleries – which is either a sign of demand or a surfeit.

“When I worked in Bexhill, I always just wanted to pull the De La Warr along to Brighton,” says Morris.

“They would be queuing up from the moment the doors opened to get inside.”

So why has it not happened?

“Politics will have played a part. Perhaps key decision makers over the years have favoured other art forms over visual arts.

“But it would strengthen the visual arts infrastructure and I’d welcome it. I live in Brighton and I’d love to see it happen.”

For details of upcoming exhibitions, visit the relevant website, as listed below: