Guest post: Gilly Clarkson explains how the Towner transforms through night-time events

Our last guest post before the Christmas break comes from Gilly Clarkson, who explains how the Towner’s programme of after-hours events brings their exhibitions to life and attracts new audiences.

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The ‘Plague Doctor’ with his long rat-like snout, the Black Swan, a robed figure with the head of a pig who could have stepped straight out of The Wicker Man – these are some of the ‘night folk’ who populated Towner’s latest nightclub, as revellers celebrated the weird and wonderful of British folklore!

2 people, one wearing a beaked plague doctor mask, one with leaves covering his face

The Plague Doctor and Green Man at the Towner’s Night Folk event (c) Kipperklock Photography

Through our late-night events we aim to broaden engagement with our major exhibitions (in this instance, a show about photography and folklore) and transform the gallery to create a completely different, interactive experience.

We hope to break down the barriers that some feel in engaging with contemporary art and attract a new audience, perhaps those who might be put off by the “typical” gallery-going experience.

Planning began three months earlier with our partner, Brighton music promoter Melting Vinyl. We thought about how we could integrate all elements of Towner for maximum effect – e.g. our young people’s crew were tasked with creating vinyl signs on mirrors, while public workshops produced carved turnips and corn dollies for decoration.

Two women with painted faces and elaborate hairstyles

Face painting and headdresses (c) Kipperklock Photography

The resulting event included sea shanties, live folk music and DJ sets, performance art, local ciders and ales, portrait photography, headdress making, face-painting, Morris men and the best dressing up we’ve ever seen.

One visitor summed it up: “We felt like the exhibition had come alive, as if the characters had stepped out of the photographs on the walls!”

A figure standing in an art gallery wearing a spiky headdress and trailing ribbons

One of the Gay Bogeys who attend the Hastings Jack-in-the-Green procession (c) Kipperklock Photography

Key to our approach is working with quality, locally connected bands to reach a local music-loving audience. The headline act were South Coast band Early Ghost, who have supported Beirut.

For the first time we conducted a post-event e-survey. While the results showed that we have more work to do on attracting a truly new audience to the gallery, we did see a number of successes.

  • Two-thirds of responders felt the event helped them understand the themes and concepts of the exhibition.
  • 80% said it made Towner feel more welcoming.
  • Over 40% agreed that it had changed their perception generally of museums and galleries.
  • All agreed that it’s important for galleries to programme events like this, especially outside London!
People with elaborate hats watching a performance

Visitors watching performers at the Towner’s Night Folk event (c) Kipperklock Photography

As the themes and activities change dramatically with each of our events, we are on a constant learning curve. We’ve been continuously honing aspects of operational delivery, and in future we’ll be focussing more on attracting a youth audience through young up-and-coming bands and student links.

Next time we’re going full-on electronica, returning to a nightclub that’s all about the beats!
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A woman with blonde hairGilly Clarkson is Communications and Marketing Manager at Towner, the contemporary art museum for the South East. She is passionate about developing audiences and trying to make Towner’s world-class exhibitions as widely accessible as possible. She was delighted to put forward one of the winning Connect10 competition ideas in 2012, which saw Bob and Roberta Smith come to Eastbourne for a special Museums at Nightclub!

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Thanks, Gilly!

Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year to everyone reading this blog.

And if your New Year’s Resolution is to promote your work and the interesting events or marketing strategies your museum or gallery is using … why not write a guest post here too? Drop me an email at rosie@culture24.org.uk.

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