As I have written in another post, Bexhill-on-Sea is one of those purgatorial, coastal towns where people go to die. It is a suburb without a city, in which the only sounds you will hear are seagulls, repeats of Inspector Morse, the slurping of thin, watery soup and the high-pitched drone of a pensioner driving at 27mph in first gear. People move here for the sea air, or so they say. I suspect that the real reason is that Bexhill induces a frame of mind that makes death a welcome release from the tedium of living there.
But Bexhill (which I visited yesterday) is also home to the De La Warr Pavilion - Britain's first public Art Deco building - which houses a superb gallery and cafe. As the building faces the sea, you can turn your back on Bexhill and enjoy views like these:
It is remarkable how the presence of one decent public building can transform a town, offering some hope of redemption. In a secular age, we desperately need places which are accessible to every member of a community. In most towns, this will mean visiting a shopping mall, cinema or leisure centre. Few are lucky enough to enjoy a really well-designed civic building that isn't owned by a corporation with a commercial agenda.
Walsall is generally regarded as one of the most appalling places in Britain. It enjoys the dubious accolade of being the fattest town in the country and, I suspect, also tops the league for teenage pregnancy. A few years ago an art gallery was opened slap bang in the middle of Walsall, replacing one that the local council had closed ten years earlier. Some people questioned the wisdom of spending £21,000,000 on an art gallery in such an unreceptive environment, but this is missing the point. Even if people can't see the point of art, if you give them a decent public building they will use it.
I think it's safe to say that not many of Walsall's residents will be enticed by a current exhibition which 'takes the figure of the angel as a starting point for an exploration of Blake's ideas about the body and spirit', but they may use the gallery as a place to meet and have a coffee and who knows, curiosity might entice them to look at some of the art.
The key is to create exciting, non-commercial spaces that aren't intimidating and give everyone in the community a sense of ownership. Also, it's vital that these places are built in the heart of the town.
What I love about the De La Warr Pavilion is its accessibility. I took my children there yesterday and after parking the car, we were able to go straight down to the beach, where we explored rock pools and found seashells. A short flight of steps took us up to the Pavilion and as we entered the main foyer, there was no awkwardness about bringing slightly sandy boys into the gallery. Indeed, with its comfortable sofas and art books, it was a home from home.
I wouldn't want to live or die in Bexhill, but thanks to the vision of the people behind the De La Warr Pavillion, I will be a frequent visitor.