High hopes in Margate for Turner Contemporary art gallery boost

  • 12 April 2011
  • From the section England
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Turner Contemporary
Image caption Margate's Turner Contemporary art gallery

Margate was once one of the most popular seaside resorts in Britain. But with the advent of cheap package holidays and guaranteed sunshine abroad it lost a lot of its appeal and became more of a ghost town.

While it still boasts some of the best beaches in the country the town has been struck by a series of unfortunate incidents in recent years.

In 2003 fire destroyed two seaside arcades, and then in 2008 another attraction - the Grade II Listed Scenic Railway - was also severely damaged by a fire.

It also has the unenviable title of Britain's top "ghost town" - a recent report on the number of High Street shops closing revealed that Margate had the highest proportion, with 37.4% of shops boarded up.

Now, as Margate prepares for the opening of the Turner Contemporary art gallery this weekend, hopes are high that it will do for the town what Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum has done for the fortunes of Bilbao in Northern Spain.

Closer to home the use of culture and the arts has also become increasingly common in the regeneration process.

The arts and regeneration

The North East is one of the leading examples of how it can have a positive impact. The development of the Sage music venue and Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead have shown that unique cultural projects like these can not only boost visitors to an area but also help create environmental, economic and social benefits.

The Minister for Arts and Culture, Ed Vaizey MP, says that "culture makes a fantastic contribution to regeneration throughout the country", and has pledged to support the South Thanet MP Laura Sandys' campaign for seaside towns, like Margate, to be marketed as all-year-round destinations.

Margate is fortunate that it's been able to attract one of the world's leading architects, David Chipperfield, to design the Turner Contemporary. He is clear that a building itself can't be responsible for the regeneration of a place. Instead, he says you should build a cultural building because you want a cultural building and it must be a building which can be enjoyed by the community.

Image caption Will Margate's tourism trade boom?

The gallery, which is a tribute to the artist JMW Turner, stands on the exact spot of the guesthouse he used to stay in on his many trips to the seaside resort. It also makes the most of the sea views and the northern light which Turner described as the "loveliest in all Europe" and so inspired his work.

The gallery won't have a permanent collection but will have at least one work by Turner (loaned from another gallery) on show at all times.

But will that be enough to encourage visitors not just from all over Kent but from London and much further afield?

Well, there certainly seems to be a buzz around town about the gallery, which has generated a huge amount of publicity for the area with dozens of newspaper and online articles.

BBC South East will be running special reports this week and will broadcast live from the Turner on Friday evening.

The gallery will be opened by Margate's most famous daughter and leading artist Tracey Emin.

She believes the development of the Turner gallery is a chance for Margate to be forward thinking again.

Emin says that with his creation Chipperfield is "not just creating an art gallery but a phoenix that will raise Margate out of the ashes".

Culture and commerce

It's a tall order to expect any one building to be able to help regenerate a whole town.

But at a time when government funding to the arts has been cut by almost 30% it's significant that the Arts Council England, the South East England Development Agency and Kent County Council are all among the bodies which have provided the £17m funding for the gallery.

Emin is convinced that "wherever the arts go, commerce always follows".

Residents in Margate, which has so much riding on the success of the new gallery, will hope that she's right and the opening of the Turner marks a new, brighter chapter for the seaside town.