VICTORIA POMERY

Selling culture to Margate

The planned centre for the visual arts in Margate is challenging local residents’ ideas about both culture and their rather shabby seaside town.

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The Turner Centre, an international centre for the visual arts, is scheduled to open in Margate in 2007. To be located in a landmark building designed by Snohetta + Spence, the centre will be a key element of the regeneration of Margate and East Kent.

The idea for the Turner Centre developed out of a number of local initiatives. In the 1990s, several active members of the community keen to promote the town’s illustrious past proposed that Margate should celebrate its links with one of Britain’s best-known artists, JMW Turner (1775-1851). More than 100 of his works, including some of his most famous seascapes, were inspired by the East Kent coast. Turner came to Margate as a child and again in the 1820s and 1830s. His sketchbooks of the time depict countless images of Margate. He is said to have told John Ruskin that ‘the skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe.’

Following a feasibility study and discussions with artists and arts organisations, Kent County Council and Thanet District Council embraced the idea. From it developed the concept of the Turner Centre. Unlike other parts of the country, Kent does not have any major venues for the visual arts. The Turner Centre is set to change this by running a changing programme of contemporary art exhibitions, as well as more historical shows.

In 2001, the local authorities and Kent Architecture Centre launched an architectural competition. The brief stated that ‘the new Turner Centre needs to be a building of real quality that will be an attraction

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in itself. The site is outstanding and provides a rare opportunity to produce a design that not only works in its own terms but also enhances the quality of its setting; a building that works as architecture and urban design’. The winning design, a collaboration between Norwegian architects Snohetta and London-based architect Stephen Spence, was selected unanimously by the panel of judges. Its elegant, sculptural form and location on the waterfront at Margate will ensure that the Turner Centre cannot be missed.

The centre will include 750 square metres of gallery space, an education area, a cafe and a shop. Each gallery, arranged over three floors, will be different, allowing for the diversity of contemporary practice to be seen to its greatest advantage. Like other venues for the visual arts, it will be important that all the public areas provide an excellent quality of experience and that this excellence extends beyond the programme alone. Orientation through the building, customer care and value for money are increasingly important elements of the visit. So too will be the entire experience of spending time in Margate.

Like many British seaside resorts, Margate declined in popularity in the 1960s and now suffers from a number of social problems including unemployment, low wages and a high incidence of teenage pregnancies. The rich architectural fabric of this once affluent and well-to-do resort has also suffered from a lack of investment. While its shabbiness retains a certain charm, many of the buildings are in need of renovation

Turner Centre, Margate. The scheme by Snohetta + Spence won an international architectural competition.

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Droit House, a former customs building, is being used as the visitor interpretation centre for the Turner Centre.

Victoria Pomery is director of the Turner Centre

and care. During the past few years a programme of regeneration has been underway, championed and led by Thanet District Council. Many of the most dilapidated buildings are being reinvigorated with financial assistance from the single regeneration budget, Heritage Lottery Fund and the EU.

Margate Old Town, where much of this work has taken place, is a distinctive and historic part of the town. Once a bustling commercial area tucked away behind the harbour, the Old Town has witnessed a decline in activity as shops and businesses moved further away from the seafront.

The Margate Old Town Action Plan set out ‘A Vision for the Future of Margate’ in a public consultation document. This advocated several ways in which Margate might develop. Culture was integral to the vision. Two years on, the development of a cultural quarter in the Old Town with small shops, galleries and workshop/studio spaces for artists is underway. It is a slow process, although the expectation of the Turner Centre has helped to quicken the pace of private-sector investment, buildings are being refurbished and new businesses are moving into the area.

The Turner Centre was conceived as a complement and catalyst for such regeneration. In February 2003 the project was granted planning permission and we hope to start building early in 2004. In the meantime, a small team of staff based in Margate is delivering a programme of audience development work. This includes placing artists in schools, professional development for teachers and artists, as well as advocacy and promotion. The team is aware that the success of the Turner Centre will depend on our ability to encourage local, regional, national and international audiences to see the changing programme of exhibitions and participate in events and activities.

Education is at the heart of all the Turner Centre’s activity. The public programme aims to demonstrate the relevance of art to people’s lives, and to inspire civic pride in a project that will lead to the sustained economic development of Margate and an improved quality of life for its residents. Some members of staff are from the area and all now live locally. We use local suppliers wherever possible and are already attracting visitors to the area.

Droit House, a former customs building, is being used as the visitor interpretation centre for the Turner Centre. Refurbished and extended to designs by Terry Farrell and Partners, this Grade II listed building, a feature of the urban landscape in Turner’s time, opened to the public in summer 2002. The front element of Droit House is used to tell the story of Turner and Margate, explain regeneration and the architects’ vision for the Turner Centre. The new extension is used for small-scale exhibitions, talks, seminars and workshops. Modest visitor figures of 12,500 in the first ten months of operation demonstrate that there is demand for culture.

The Turner Centre is a very ambitious project. Its success will be measured by the quality of its architecture

and programme, but also on visitor numbers, how much the visitors spend, and economic development in general. I hope there will also be some softer targets, far more difficult to quantify, including promoting civic pride, serving as an education resource and promoting social inclusion. We still have lots to do, but the project has already garnered real interest from the national press and has done much to change perceptions about Margate. The local press has not been quite so positive and some local residents understandably have concerns. These range from disliking the design of the building to wanting an ice-rink, and from problems of car parking to doubts about the costs of the project.

Our programme of audience development work is strategic but tries to address concerns as they are raised. We have already had a number of public meetings about the Turner Centre and members of the team regularly speak to community groups. We are fortunate to be able to look at models in other parts of the country, including Tate at St Ives, the New Art Gallery in Walsall and the Lowry Centre at Salford. A recent series of talks entitled Designed for You gave members of the community an opportunity to hear speakers on subjects as diverse as regeneration, the role of the artist, and how to get the best out of your art gallery.

Communicating the vision becomes even more important in a small, close-knit community with differing views on the role of culture in society. Kent County Council and Thanet District Council are working closely together to ensure that the vision is clearly articulated, and that the community has the opportunity to change and influence it. There is a real sense that the centre can make a difference, that the time is right and that East Kent’s potential particularly as a tourist destination has to be realised.

Regeneration means different things to different people. Increasingly it must address quality of life issues. I believe that culturally led regeneration can and does work. But there are no quick fixes and it has to be part of a total package for an area. The Turner Centre on its own cannot change attitudes, create new opportunities and reinvent a place. We have to work together with many different partners to provide a package that is right for Margate and East Kent.

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