Can art regenerate a community?

by Sue Hubbard

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Can art regenerate a community? Can building an architect designed gallery in a socially deprived area change its fortunes? Everyone wants a Bilbao Guggenheim. Almost overnight Bilbao was transformed from a culturally moribund commercial centre in an unfashionable corner of Spain’s Basque region to a must-see destination. After its opening in 1997 hundreds of thousands of tourists began to pour into the city just to visit Frank Ghery’s new building. Then came the knock- on effects: the new hotels, the expanding of the airport, the upgrading of facilities and extra employment and, hey-presto, Bilbao was changed forever.

It was a far sighted decision by the local burghers even though there was, at the time, much opposition. But the result is one of the most extraordinary and beautiful modern buildings you will see anywhere. Tate St. Ives, above Porthmeor beach, has also been a success. But here the project was built on an historic legacy, for St. Ives has, due to its especial clarity of light, had a thriving artistic community since the 19th century. The tiny fishing village, a popular middle-class holiday destination, already attracted people who might be expected to visit a gallery.

But the opening of Turner Contemporary this week, in the rundown seaside resort of Margate, most famous in recent years as the childhood home of the artist Tracey Emin, has a bigger challenge on its hands.

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Margate, within the Thanet district of East Kent, is an hour and a half’s train journey from St. Pancras International. Its history is closely tied to the sea. It was a “limb” of Dover in the ancient confederation of the Cinque Ports. A traditional holiday destination since Victorian times for Londoners drawn to its sandy beaches, it slipped down the social scale in the 1960s and 70s when working families were able to take cheap package holidays to the continent where the sun shone and cheap alcohol was guaranteed. As with resorts such as Brighton and Southend, Margate became infamous in the ‘60s for gang violence between mods and rockers, while its once elegant 18th and 19th century facades were ripped out and replaced by tattoo parlours, amusement arcades and fish and chip booths. Unemployment soared.

Now Margate has its own brand new art space, the Turner Contemporary designed by the internationally acclaimed architect, David Chipperfield, winner of the 2007 RIBA Stirling Prize and RIBA Gold Medal for Architecture. Established in 2001, Turner Contemporary has already been using a number of temporary exhibition spaces while the new gallery was in the process of being built. In 2005 it undertook, with Modern Art Oxford, a two year collaboration to introduce works of art from the expanded European Union. A far reaching education programme is also at the heart of its programme.

Cashing in on its association with Britain’s best-known painter, JMW Turner, a regular visitor to Margate, the gallery has been built on the seafront on the site of the guesthouse frequented by the artist, who enjoyed a clandestine relationship with its landlady, Mrs Booth. Flooded with natural light, the double height gallery provides a dramatic space in which to showcase art work, and takes maximum advantage of the dramatic setting with its panoramic views of both sea and town. An external terrace will be used for everything from film screenings to corporate events and weddings. It is a beautiful building, but it is not the Guggenheim Bilbao. Tasteful, full of light and ubiquitous glass it is a great showcase for contemporary art but doesn’t quite have the wow factor of the Gehry that might make people jump on a train from London and travel the 90 minutes simply to see the building. It also does not have a permanent collection. Unlike that other new Chipperfield gallery, The Hepworth, Wakefield, which opens later this spring in Yorkshire and will house a unique collection of Barbara Hepworth sculpture, the nation’s Turners will not be housed here but remain at the Clore Gallery, Tate Britain; though Margate is to have at least one in permanent residence. A member of the Plus Tate partnership, a UK-wide network of 18 partner galleries, Turner Contemporary aims to become part of the innovative art scene that has burgeoned in the UK in the last twenty years.

But can artistic and economic change be imposed as a top down initiative? After all Hoxton in London, SoHo in New York, and even Montmartre in Paris grew, organically, as cultural sites of activity because they were cheap and attracted artists to live and work there, not because of the initiative of some cultural quango. So can this work? Can a new gallery really rejuvenate a economically depressed area?

Well it will depend on a difficult balancing act. The gallery aims to put on exhibitions of international significance, but these may not feel relevant to a local population less versed in the language and aesthetics of contemporary art than those who mount them. Revealed: Turner Contemporary Opens, the inaugural exhibition, is centred on Turner’s magnificent painting The Eruption of the Soufrier Mountains, in the Island of St. Vincent, at Midnight, on the 30th April, 1812, from a Sketch Taken at the Time by Hugh P. Keane, Esqre, 1815; an event not actually witnessed by the artist. The painting stands as a testimony to the power of the imagination and the curiosity engendered by new places and natural phenomena that contributed to the zeitgeist of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; an era of discovery and innovation when artists and scientists worked in close dialogue. Featured alongside Tuner’s extraordinary painting is the work of six international contemporary artists: Daniel Buren, Russell Crotty, Teresita Fernández, Douglas Gordon, Ellen Harvey and Conrad Shawcross, including four new commissions. Michael Craig Martin has also created a new version of a big neon book, Turning Pages, originally displayed outside Margate Library.

Less a group show and more an individual response to the location with its associations and history, its play of light and ever-changing vistas of sea and sky, these artists each present works for a separate space within the building. The French artist Daniel Buren has made a dramatic piece for the two-storey Sunley Gallery on Turner Contemporary’s ground floor. Attention is drawn to the view outside by the large empty circle, which functions like a picture frame or tondo painting, within the pattern of vertical translucent white and transparent yellow vinyl overlaid on the glass. Placed on either side are large mirrors that display an infinite series of repeated reflections. Echoing the economic purity of the architecture the piece acts as a porthole framing the natural drama outside.

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During the final weeks of his life, Turner’s mistress, Sophie Booth, reportedly spoke of him struggling to climb out of bed to see the sun. On one occasion he was heard to utter ‘the sun is God’. Whether the words meant something more devout, ‘the Son is God’, is impossible to know. The artist Douglas Gordon has played on this ambiguity to create a text work that has been installed on the risers of the stairway.

Minimalism is also the hallmark of the American artist Teresita Fernández. Eruption (Small) is a roughly ovoid aluminium plate covered in an abstract image of orange, red and yellow, with a dark purplish centre, overlaid with glass beads to suggest the mouth of a volcano. An accompanying wall piece, made in 2009, Sfumato (September 18) alludes, tangentially, to Turner’s volcanic reconstruction. Sfumato in Italian means ‘to evaporate like smoke’. It also makes oblique reference to the Renaissance painting convention, in which artists often presented their subjects in a veil of smoke.

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The Californian Russell Crotty has created an installation of three large globes suspended from the ceiling to the precise height of 54 inches from the ground to their ‘equators’. An amateur astronomer, Crotty is used to the view through a traditional telescope where everything is observed through a circular eye piece. This is reflected in his fragile globes constructed of fibreglass, covered with rigid layers of paper and then painted with gouache and ink and covered with hand written text, that create pictorial landscapes. Taken from notes and jottings these ‘narratives’ form a continuous thread-like a walk through the landscape.

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Ellen Harvey, a Kent-born American artist, has created a nostalgic relationship with both Margate and Turner. A shack made from plywood sits in the gallery alluding to Turner’s studio. Leaning against the outer wall, lit with the sort of light bulbs used to decorate fairground rides, is the word ARCADIA. This is a reference to classical notions of the pastoral idyll and the way in which traditional British seaside holidays, with their side shows and slot machines, their candy floss and amusement arcades, function as an escapist fantasy from the humdrum. Inside the shack forty four frameless pictures hang salon-style, in the sort of chaotic disarray that was found in Turner’s London studio after his death. Engraved with diamond point – like lino-cuts on the reverse side of cheap Plexiglas that has been back-lit – Harvey has created an installation that is both nostalgic, with its picture post-card views of Margate frozen in time, and addresses Romantic notions of the Sublime. The tradition of the “Wish you were here,” picture- postcard, along with those crazy distorting mirrors found in seafront amusement arcades are also suggested by her highly skilled artworks.

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A concern with the nature of knowledge underlies the work of Conrad Shawcross, whose love of constructing eccentric ‘Heath Robinson’ machines illustrates an interest in the utopian views that drove the technological inventions of the Industrial Revolution. Shawcross’s whimsical structures have no practical use. The blades on a suspended oak and metal tripod move in a rhythmic sequence, at a ratio of 5:4, which in musical terms constitutes a ‘perfect third’ casting light onto a vertical structure in the centre of the room, which is the physical manifestation of a musical cord. Elsewhere are a series of drawings made with an adapted drawing machine based on a ‘harmonograph’, an instrument originally made in the 1890s to create geometric images of sound.

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The opening of Turner Contemporary has required a huge leap of faith in these difficult financial times. There is a great will to make it succeed both aesthetically and in terms of its socio-economic impact on the town. Maybe in a few years Margate will have made it onto the list of destinations favoured by cultural weekenders tired of Paris and Rome. Bilbao may have its Gerhy building and be close to the delightful San Sebastian, home of the great sculpture Chillida, but Margate has ‘our Tracey’ and offers, not only the opportunity to see new art in a dramatic setting, but something as uniquely English as a stick of rock.

So make mine a cod and chips, please, and I’ll just nip down to the beach and watch the tide go out and the children on the bouncy castle on the golden sands, before making my way back up to the new landmark to see some more art.


  1. Turner Contemporary. Architect David Chipperfield. Image: Richard Bryant/
  2. Daniel Buren: installation view at Turner Contemporary. Borrowing and Multiplying the Landscape, work in situ 2011, mirrors, self-adhesive white vinyl and coloured filters. Courtesy the artist. Image: David Grandorge
  3. Douglas Gordon: installation view at Turner Contemporary. Afterturner 2000, wall text. Courtesy the artist. Image: David Grandorge
  4. Teresita Fernández: installation view at Turner Contemporary. Sfumato (September 18) 2009, graphite drawing courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York.
  5. Daniel Crotty: installation view at Turner Contemporary. The Cape, 2010, ink and gouache on paper on fibreglass sphere, 91.4cm, courtesy Hosfelt Gallery. Image David Grandorge.
  6. Ellen Harvey: installation view at Turner Contemporary. Arcadia 2011, mixed media installation. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Gebruder Lehmann, Locks Gallery and Meessen de Clercq. Image David Grandorge.
  7. Conrad Shawcross, installation view at Turner Contemporary. Limit of Everything (5.4) 2011, metal, oak, mechanical system, light, dimensions variable; Harmonic Manifold (5.4) 2011, cast bronze. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro Gallery. Image David Grandorge.