Probably the last of the gallery regeneration schemes, the Turner Contemporary opened on 16 April in Margate. Margate has been in a depressed state for decades and as you walk from the railway station it shows: boarded up shop fronts, a sad faded seafront, slot machines, cheap drinks and the smell of chips.
The gallery is a series of connected square sheds completely out of scale with its surroundings. It is not the Guggenheim in Bilbao and it is purely functional rather than a statement. It looks like places where nuclear submarines are built. But it does have fantastic views of the sea.
Calling it the Turner Contemporary is a bit of a con. Poor old Turner has been betrayed again. When he left all his paintings and sketches to the nation he did so on the condition that they would be shown to the public. This has yet to happen and at the opening show here there is just one on display. There is no permanent collection so the hundreds of Turners hidden away will stay hidden. The show has seven artists’ reactions to Turner, or his paintings or Margate or both, in short a gimmick.
Turner often went to Margate, saying that the skies over Thanet were the loveliest in Europe, and it often featured in his work. It seems perverse then to have as the one Turner on display here his painting of a volcanic eruption on the Caribbean island of St Vincent.
My favourite of the contemporary art was Ellen Harvey’s ARCADIA, a sort of wooden Wendy house based on Turner’s own plans for a gallery, with large engraved mirrors with a panorama of Margate scratched on. The Turner itself is fantastic, but is one that is always on show. I left the gallery wanting more of him, perhaps works showing “the loveliest sky in Europe”.
The locals who mostly packed it on the opening day seem not to have been brought up to respond to art galleries as if they are churches, but reacted to the art as curios. They chattered, laughed and debated, and suddenly Margate’s gallery made more sense. I can see it has a role, in fact a number of roles: it provides great spaces for up and coming Banksy-style street artists (all those lovely white concrete walls), wonderful views of the sea, and a replacement for the demolished funfair and long absent freak shows at the end of the pier.
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