“If you want a dirty weekend, go to Margate. You can be as dirty as you like. Van Gogh and Turner, Ronnie Biggs and the Krays all went there ... Margate – the nub of the Isle of Thanet, thrusting like a bent forefinger from the crazed knuckle of England. Planet Thanet, also known as the Last Resort.”
This is Tracey Emin, writing in her 2005 memoir Strangeland, on “the derelict seaside town” where she grew up with “nothing to do but blend in with the general decay ... and wish your life away”.
Would her unhappy life there have been different if Margate had boasted a gleaming free-entry museum, its white silhouette standing sharp against the waves, dominating and energising the Victorian harbour?
Opening in a fortnight, Turner Contemporary, a £17m new museum designed by David Chipperfield, is just that. The name plays on Margate’s association with the 19th-century artist, a regular visitor: it occupies the site of the guest house run by Mrs Booth, JMW Turner’s landlady and intimate. Its naturally lit galleries and glass exterior exploit the exceptional coastal light, so viewers will see why Turner reckoned “the skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe”. Chipperfield, whose showpieces include Berlin’s Neues Museum and the extension to the Museum Folkwang in Essen, says the light in the Margate museum is “the best we’ve done”.
But can Margate, a small, working-class town suffering far higher unemployment than the average across south-east England, and in decline for a century, really become an art world player?
I wonder. In seven years as the FT’s art critic, reviewing more than a hundred shows annually, I have never seen a world-class exhibition in England outside London. In the same period, dazzling modern or contemporary shows in European provincial towns have included Cézanne in Essen, which continued to the Guggenheim in New York; Baden-Baden’s Sculpture by Painters; Black is also a Colour at Saint-Paul de Vence in the south of France; Rotterdam’s De Kooning, and Grenoble’s current Chagall. All drew wide local and international audiences.
Turner Contemporary is also aiming to attract both Margate residents and cultural tourists, whose visits, it is hoped, will kick-start new enterprise and so help urban regeneration. No one should underestimate the difficulties of promoting instant aesthetic consumption, however: Margate is not the chic hilltop village of Saint-Paul de Vence or the affluent Black Forest spa town Baden-Baden – and even the former grimy industrial heartland of Essen has had its Folkwang Museum since 1922.
That same year, in his poem “The Waste Land”, TS Eliot, who had been recuperating from a nervous breakdown in the Kent seaside town, wrote “On Margate sands/I can connect/Nothing out of nothing”.
Turner Contemporary is the latest in a string of young British regional museums, each the focus of efforts to transform a 20th-century urban wasteland into a 21st-century metropolis where cultural and intellectual connections spring up, as it were, out of nothing. They include New Art Gallery Walsall and Salford’s The Lowry (both 2000), Baltic in Gateshead (2002), De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill (2005), Middlesbrough’s MIMA (2007), The Public in West Bromwich (2008), Nottingham Contemporary (2009) and, opening next month, the £35m Hepworth Wakefield, named after the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, a native of the West Yorkshire city. Also designed by Chipperfield, this sombre but luminous assemblage of angled pavilions on the banks of the Calder, will be the UK’s biggest purpose-built museum outside London.
If the 1990s saw unprecedented ambition in British art-making, the noughties was the epoch of museum-building, the bricks-and-mortar embodiment of the widening interest in art in the past two decades, a democratisation achieved partly through the vernacular language of Young British Artists such as Emin and Damien Hirst, whose savvy bypassing of Mayfair galleries in favour of organising their own shows opened art to a fresh public.
The YBAs’ success also spawned a new elite coterie of curators, artists and dealers, mostly concerned with conceptual art, emerging from schools such as Hirst’s alma mater Goldsmiths College. Their power base is London but their influence is felt nationwide. The touring British Art Show 7, for example, opened last October in Nottingham featuring 39 artists, more than half of them conceptualists from east London galleries; no English galleries outside London were represented.
Such trends beg an important question about the new regional museums: who benefits from them – local residents and visitors, or London-oriented curators and artists using these venues for their own interests? Does anyone want to see the exhibitions the latter deliver to the former?
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Beyond doubt, showcase museums can give towns a contemporary face. Nottingham is no longer just defined by Robin Hood but also by Caruso St John’s arresting £20m gallery with its verdigris-scalloped concrete surfaces and 132 skylights. Baltic, a £45m conversion of a former Rank Hovis flour mill, towers over the Tyne at Gateshead, symbolising culture’s potential to transform former industrial heartlands.
Except that Baltic has no collection, nor any budget for acquisitions. Nor do Nottingham, Margate or Bexhill. In the rush to endow these places with trophy buildings, attention to the contents – what characterises a gallery, what makes it revisited, loved and remembered – was forgotten. But without art to call their own, museums are empty shells. They cannot trade loans, nor build shows around core holdings. Their huge spaces look bare; yet so sacrosanct is the desired feel-good effect that questions about their real workings are rarely raised.
Nottingham had a fanfare inauguration with superb early David Hockneys, but its programme has since been lacklustre: mainly earnest thematic shows such as Uneven Geographies, about art and globalisation. Baltic, which has seen four directors in under a decade, and opened not only minus a collection but without cloakroom or information desk (signs that visitors were not first priority) has a narrowly conceptual programme. Newcastle-based critic William Varley, who described Baltic as “the safely provincial test-bed of the wannabe cutting-edgers”, says: “I am not making a plea for a popularist programme but one of quality, wider curatorial scope and greater balance.”
Turner Contemporary’s opening schedule is just as disappointing. Revealed promises a single Turner, “The Eruption of the Souffrier Mountains”, alongside work by “six major international artists”. Three of these, Russell Crotty, Teresita Fernandez and Ellen Harvey, are no such thing; but they and the others – conceptual painter Daniel Buren, geometric sculptor Conrad Shawcross and film-maker Douglas Gordon – are spuriously linked to Turner because, according to a statement by Turner Contemporary director Victoria Pomery, all “play at the borders between what we can see and know and the truly fantastic”. A second show, Nothing in the World but Youth, explores “youth experience ... through artworks, photographs, films, music, fashion”.
These strike me as uninspiring prospects. Recent years have shown that to put a museum on the map you hold a must-see retrospective of a significant artist. Attendance figures – more than 200,000 visitors for Tate Britain’s Freud and Bacon shows, over 400,000 for the Royal Academy’s Van Gogh and Tate Modern’s Gauguin versus 47,000 for arid conceptual sculptor Roni Horn at Tate Modern – confirm audiences flock to quality. If Britain’s new museums are to avoid ending up white elephants, they must be more ambitious, grasp their role is to show the best art, not indulge curatorial whims, and to navigate a meaningful local role within an increasingly global cultural economy.
The different ways they are finding to do this unravel the web of interests and control in today’s art world. Some have become determinedly regional. The Lowry, for example, mainly shows its namesake’s work, plus neighbourhood exhibitions such as the current Unlocking Salford Quays. Walsall, though it was bequeathed an international collection by Lady Kathleen Epstein, also typically chooses to show local exhibitions.
West Bromwich’s The Public carefully dovetails the local with the larger picture: its spring exhibitions opening this week feature a West Midlands knitting group, industrial photography from the Black Country and works from the international collection of Frank Cohen, who has a gallery in Wolverhampton and buys in China, India, and from fashionable dealer Larry Gagosian. This sounds a surreal juxtaposition but The Public, a £52m project stalled by delays and budget problems, has been welcomed locally and takes seriously its role as “a place where people who don’t normally feel comfortable in arts venues can enjoy themselves, feel welcomed and are confident to experience new things”.
MIMA, recognising the limits of its smallish space and budget, is becoming a centre of expertise for drawing. An Ellsworth Kelly display and The End of the Line: Attitudes in Drawing have been among several thoughtful shows, and have encouraged gifts of an impressive one hundred works on paper from artists and collectors. This in turn has conferred a status that attracts promising young artists – I hugely enjoyed the first public exhibition devoted to abstract painter Katy Moran there in 2008.
The De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, East Sussex capitalises on its heritage 1935 building to expand understanding of modernism. A John Cage exhibition opens this month, and its contemporary choices slant towards conceptualists who engage with space and architecture – Nathan Coley, Tomoko Takahashi – and to abstract modernists such as Kenneth and Mary Martin. Yet despite its cohesive programme, one longs to see a lush, sensuous painter or figurative, tactile sculptor illuminating this unique space.
Hepworth Wakefield opens in May
The newest museum, the Hepworth, starts at an advantage: it owns 6,000 works amassed by the city of Wakefield, mostly of 20th-century British artists – Hepworth, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, David Bomberg, Patrick Heron. Its inaugural displays will be a seminal group of 44 plasters casts gifted by Hepworth’s family, loans of Brancusi and Mondrian, and Hot Touch, a solo show by Eva Rothschild, who makes subtle, melancholy sculptures in diverse materials. This presses persuasive 21st-century buttons: visibility for women, balancing young and historic, national and international. Should the Hepworth fulfil its promise as an innovative gallery with its strengths in sculpture, this part of England (the Yorkshire Sculpture Park is seven miles away, the Henry Moore Institute is in nearby Leeds) could become a truly global centre. Not before time. In Europe, historic connections have created several important regional milieux. The Côte d’Azur is a showcase for postwar modernism, with museums devoted to Picasso, Chagall, Leger, Matisse, Bonnard – who all lived there. Helped by connections to local residents Joseph Beuys and Gerhard Richter, Germany’s Ruhr is also thriving, with Essen’s Folkwang joined by Dusseldorf’s K20 and K21 museums, and Cologne’s Museum Ludwig.
In Britain, the cultural gap between the capital and the regions was always more marked than in federal Germany or statist France, where museums come under the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, ensuring fairer distribution of important pieces.
The UK’s variations on this model, such as the Hayward’s touring displays, have historically been low-key. A landmark change, in 2009, was dealer Anthony d’Offay’s Artist Rooms, a donation of 725 contemporary works on constant tour, organised by Tate and Scotland’s National Galleries. The scheme is transforming quality, international scope and, crucially, expectations in regional galleries, with selections and venues sensitively chosen: sculptor Beuys at De La Warr; Anselm Kiefer, who deals in industrial aftermath, at Baltic.
D’Offay’s “art without a museum” is the perfect fit for museums without art. It is already prompting more regional awareness at Tate, which has outsourced this year’s Turner Prize to Baltic, only the second time it will be hosted outside London and the first time outside a Tate museum.
Still, Tate could do more. It has hundreds of masterpieces in storage (see box page 1). The greatest of these should be dispatched up and down the country. Commercial galleries cannily exploit this resource – Gagosian borrowed Tate’s triptychs for its 2006 Bacon show; Helly Nahmad supplemented his 2010 Matisse exhibition with Tate’s “The Inattentive Reader”. How perverse that seminal works belonging to the nation are boosting dealers’ (selling) shows rather than reaching nationwide audiences.
Stone walls do not a museum make: great art does.
In the vaults but ripe for exhibition
The contemporary and modern collections in London and Edinburgh rank among the best in the world, yet space constraints dictate that far more is kept in the vaults than on display. Below are some of the unseen riches that could be star exhibits in exhibitions up and down the country.
Tate. The resources in the store here are staggering. They range from Pierre Bonnard’s shimmering, unstable “The Table”, acquired from the artist in 1925 and among his greatest works, through Lucian Freud’s chilling but much-loved “Girl with a White Dog” (1950), a portrait of his first wife Kitty, and “Black Triptych”, one of the important series painted by Francis Bacon after the suicide of his lover George Dyer, to Chris Ofili’s “No Woman No Cry” (1998), a London painting known both for its masterly, inventive form and subject – it is a tribute to murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence.
Tate points out that though they are not currently on display all four works have been exhibited at a Tate gallery or on loan to another institution “within the past year, and in some cases within the past month or two”.
National Galleriesof Scotland. Distinctively Scottish works include still lifes, studio pictures and occasional landscapes by the wonderful, still underrated modernist colourists Samuel John Peploe (“Pink Roses, Chinese Vase”; the cubist 1913 “Still Life”), Francis Cadell (“The Model”, “Portrait of a Lady in Black”), George Hunter (“Still Life, Stocks”) and John Duncan Fergusson (the Whistler-esque firework painting “Dieppe, 14 July 1905: Night”). Of 34 Edinburgh-owned works by this group, only one is currently on display, though the gallery says autumn exhibitions of all three artists will run over the next three years, starting with Cadell in October 2011.
National Portrait Gallery. More a showcase of subjects than of artists, this popular museum also is home to unshown examples of 21st-century portraiture such as Paula Rego’s “Germaine Greer” and Maggi Hambling’s “(Alan) George Heywood Melly” and Allen Jones’ “Darcy Andrea Bussell”.