Margate: Turner Contemporary

Last weekend was the opening of the new Turner Contemporary art gallery on Margate’s seafront. I attended.

Having spent the best part of last year living in Deal (a small, quietly vibrant seaside town on the Kent coast) I got to know Margate a bit, mostly through outreach work that the company I worked for did there. It’s a very deprived and depressing place, but there is so much visible potential (so much fantastic architecture, so much space, so much beach) it’s possible to remain upbeat about the place in spite of it all. I suppose perhaps that’s the Londoner in me talking – a place that has unused/semi-derelict Georgian terraced houses with huge windows? Unthinkable. Fantastic. I think that’s part of the problem; the intimation of gentrification that opening a stonking new art gallery brings with it. Is that what Margate needs? I suppose the idea is to attract money to the town and hope for the best.

Stepping off the train I am struck by the contrast with the last time I set foot in Margate. Here is an extract from something I jotted down whilst waiting to be collected from Margate train station cafe, not more than a few weeks ago:

“past a closed pub towards a ‘cafe’ sign, which on closer inspection marks a chip shop with indoor seating. Someone in a grimy sweatshirt sits inside with their back to the window and is the only customer. A few steps further down the street is a patch of grass. A burly dog is defecating. You couldn’t make it up. Down the hill, stretching out into the distance is an elongated row of boarded up kebab shops, broken street lamps, the sound of seagulls… concrete and grease-smelling view.”

So last weekend the sight of hordes of people on the promenade, sitting outside pubs I hadn’t noticed were there, strolling, laughing, generally making merry, was a bit of a shock, if a pleasant one. I can’t imagine that all of these people are local – the whole scene seemed improbable. Perhaps local in the same way that our little group is – all the way from Deal, half an hour away by train. This, I think is part of the problem with the whole project, and what makes me uneasy about it. Who is it for? It’s not for the people of Margate, surely? There is no denying that there is an artistic community here, and all over the Kent coast, Whitstable in particular, but is the fact that artists live here enough? Where is the audience? I suppose the idea is that there will be a gradual influx, both of day-trippers and permanent settlers who can’t afford to live in London or have lost the inclination. Both of these things, I feel certain, will happen – it’s only a matter of time – but how soon? I can see the potential here, can see the hunger in the eyes of developers.. but how long does Turner have to earn back the millions spent on this brand spanking new state of the art gallery? There are a lot of questions.

But, to the gallery itself! What a fantastic space. It really is very beautiful, inside and out, and the location couldn’t be better. As we appraoched it, the light installation set up for the opening glowed on the water like a lighthouse or a moon, outshining the real full moon which hovered also above the gallery. Bright lights of Margate! and the people, still flocking around their new playground. I wonder how many will return.

The work on display was very much themed around locality, and all was of  a high standard, all clearly well thought out and chosen for purpose. I would expect nothing less for such a high-profile event at which there is so much at stake. There was live music downstairs from the Cocos Lovers, a Deal-based band making big waves. It’s always heartening to see them amassing more and more followers. See them live if you can (they’re at lots of festivals this summer): there’s no substitute. We weren’t allowed to bring drinks from the cafe into the room they were performing in, so we climbed (ever-so gracefully) over the balcony railings outside to drink and loiter, looking in. I suppose they didn’t want their brand new floors soaked in beer on opening night, which seems fair enough. The music was playing on speakers outside the bulding as well, so people looking out to sea could hear it too. A lovely touch; very atmospheric.

All in all I suppose there’s no room for negativity about this project. It’s a great space and surely an art gallery is never a wholly bad thing; one just hopes that the people in charge have a well-laid plan. It’ll be a huge shame if it doesn’t work out, so I urge you: go and see it! Make it work! Give Margate a chance.

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