The 19th-century artist JMW Turner once observed that ‘the skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all of Europe’ – something of a contrast to the ugly, grey tower block that dominates the present-day skyline of his beloved Margate.
From every vantage point, the eye is immediately drawn to the 1960s-built blot on the landscape. It pretty much embodies the careworn buildings and down-at-heel environment of the Kent seaside resort.
But things are set to change – visually, at any rate – as a result of an ambitious proposal for a modern art gallery on a site near where Turner stayed on his regular visits to the town. After 20 years in the pipeline and one false start, the Turner Contemporary is going to be built.
Designed by Stirling Prize-winning architect David Chipperfield, the £17.5m gallery will be clad in white, opaque glass to reflect the light that inspired Turner.
The various local authorities and public sector agencies behind the venture are in the final throes of picking a contractor after securing planning permission from Thanet District Council in February. Construction will start this autumn for completion by 2010.
If nothing else, it will be a stunning addition to the skyline. But the project’s backers hope the building will be far more than architectural eye candy. Although the gallery will promote modern art, part of it will be set aside for an ever-changing collection of Turner paintings, following an agreement with their permanent home, the Tate. Such an irresistible combination will turn Margate into a cultural hot spot. That’s the theory, anyway.
‘The Turner Contemporary is the catalyst for a whole range of cultural experiences and facilities, which we hope will generate local employment, business opportunities and create a thriving creative sector,’ says Derek Harding, programme director of urban regeneration company Margate Renewal Partnership.
Harding’s hopes for the Turner Contemporary are based on predictions of 85,000 visitors each year, generating £1.7m in income, or £20 a head. He says that, currently, day trippers to Margate use the car parks, eat their sandwiches on the beach and leave, spending only £9 each on average.
‘What we want to do is bring the type of visitor who is normally attracted to Canterbury and your more established cultural offers, draw them into the area and hopefully ensure that they come back and visit not just Margate, but east Kent,’ says Harding.
There is no such thing as an original idea when it comes to seaside regeneration. Margate is just the latest resort to turn to art as a means of tourist trade gentrification. As Harding freely acknowledges, the model he is following is Tate St Ives, which is widely judged to have been a success for the Cornish town. Along the Kent coast, meanwhile, the spotlight is on the inaugural Folkestone Triennial, a widely publicised exhibition running over the summer and featuring artists such as Tracey Emin.
Famously shortlisted for the Turner Prize, ‘Mad Tracey from Margate’ – her own description – has also spoken out in favour of the Turner Contemporary in the press, albeit some years ago — this has been a long-running project.
By coincidence, the gallery’s Fort Hill site is next to the spot where Emin tried to take her own life by leaping from the harbour wall.
Folkestone and Margate are similar in the scale of their economic decline and the challenge they face in altering perceptions and attracting a new generation of visitors. Indeed, these problems are common to all UK resorts, prompting the British Urban Regeneration Association to establish a steering group for seaside towns, chaired by Harding.
Not everyone is convinced about their artistic leanings, however. Following the triennial’s opening last month, Eamonn Maxwell, curator of London’s University of the Arts and a resident of Brighton, questioned the link between art and seaside regeneration. In a letter to the London Evening Standard, Maxwell wrote: ‘For culture to work in any town, it has to have a local audience. Getting the cool London set down for the private view is all well and good, but who is going to visit Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion on a wet Monday?’
Maxwell described even Brighton’s art scene as ‘quite provincial’. He added: ‘Brighton is about an hour from London by train and many curators, designers and artists live here, but work in the capital. Art has played little part in the town’s regeneration over the past 20 years.’
Yet Margate – which Harding says has a level of unemployment and related economic problems that are among the worst in the region – hopes to make a national impact with the Turner Contemporary, although projected visitor numbers have been scaled back since Chipperfield came on board in 2006. More than 150,000 visitors a year were envisaged for an earlier proposal for an offshore gallery designed by Norwegian architect Snohetta and Spence, before it was scrapped when its projected costs rose from £7m to £50m.
Ambitious projects such as Turner Contemporary are not easy anywhere, but in a jaded seaside resort such as Margate, there are sharply contrasting views about what constitutes heritage and value for taxpayers’ money.
Harding admits it has been hard to sell the idea of an art gallery to some local residents, who believe the money could be more usefully spent on schools and healthcare.
The town’s other key regeneration project – the mixed-use redevelopment of the Dreamlands amusement park – has been the subject of a vocal anti-development campaign. There are just as strong feelings towards preserving slot machines and rollercoaster rides as there are towards promoting art.
It is ironic, as Harding notes, that Margate’s decline should worsen during a decade of sustained economic growth in the south-east, and that this most ambitious cultural project is getting off the ground just as the credit crunch has put a stop to development elsewhere.
In some respects, the gallery is already regenerating the town. With funding from the South East England Development Agency, Turner Contemporary, the organisation that will run the gallery, has moved into the formerMarks & Spencer store on the high street, turning it into exhibition space for the next few years. M&S’s withdrawal from the town three years ago was symptomatic of Margate’s plight, but the most recent art exhibition at its old site attracted 19,000 visitors over three months.
Harding says private art galleries and restaurants have leased some of the old town’s empty shops. The idea is to ‘replicate the feel and environment’ of the Lanes, the popular retail area behind the seafront in Brighton.
But perhaps the most heartening spin-off from the Turner Contemporary is at the adjacent Rendezvous site, where Kent County Council and Thanet District Council have selected Gleeson Developments as development partner for a big mixed-use project. It is yet to be worked up in detail, but will feature housing and a four-star hotel. Harding reveals that Gleeson beat a bid from Urban Splash, best known for its innovative housing projects in northern England.
‘Both of them said they wouldn’t have looked at it without the Turner Contemporary,’ he reveals.
Thursday, 17 June 2010
Daytrippers spend £9 per day in Margate
Back to looking at various visitor profiles as part of the discussion on the possible effect of the Tesco store near the beach. Back in 2008, Margate Renewal Partnership stated that daytrippers who come to the beach and leave spend on average £9 per day as opposed to £20 that is hoped the cultural tourist will spend who wanders more round the town and visits the gallery. Full article: