Start Again Margate and Wakefield are the latest troubled towns to attempt to boost their fortunes by building major art galleries but does the approach work, and how does anyone even know if it has been a success? Sophie McBain sidesteps the gift shops to explore the finer details
Margate and Wakefield are the latest troubled towns to attempt to boost their fortunes by building major art galleries — but does the approach work, and how does anyone even know if it has been a success? Sophie McBain sidesteps the gift shops to explore the finer details
‘WELCOME TO MARGATE, home of Turner Contemporary,’ read a cheerful little sign at the station, but outside the atmosphere was less upbeat. The Flag and Whistle pub across the road was boarded up, as was the Railway Café next door.
Admittedly, it wasn’t the best of days to explore a British seaside town. The sea that so enthralled JMW Turner was mud brown, the sky steely and flat, the wind biting. I followed the road towards the coastline and stopped at Saying Stones, a public art installation by Suzanne Dunne, placed here in 1997. The stone slabs are carved with cutesy reflections on Margate based on poetry exercises with a local youth club — public art at its blandest.
‘The air is scented with grass, damp and sweet. And vinegar and chips. And candy floss,’ says one — but you’d have to walk a little way to find a fish and chip shop here. Along the waterfront, shop after shop has closed down: UK Mobility Services, Flash on Flesh tattoo parlour, the kebab shop, MD Gifts and Toys, the Seaside Café, Supergift, every single shop in the graffiti-covered Arlington Square shopping centre — until I finally found Dreamlands Amusements open but empty, the arcade games flashing multicoloured lights for no one.
Then, when you get to within about 100 metres of Turner Contemporary, the David Chipperfield-designed art space that opened in 2011, something peculiar happens. Suddenly — and this phenomenon is limited to a few small streets around the gallery — there’s a colourful cluster of cake shops and tearooms, vintage boutiques, kitsch gift shops and olde-fashioned sweet shoppes.
Inside Turner Contemporary’s café, with its clean white furniture and local art on the walls, Richard Morsley, the gallery’s deputy director, tells me that regenerating Margate was ‘absolutely essential to why the investment was made’. It was the argument that a new art gallery could revive and rebrand this deprived corner of Kent that convinced the funding partners, Kent County Council, Arts Council England, and the South East Development Agency, that the £17.4 million project was worthwhile.
Morsley came armed with facts to illustrate the gallery’s success: a recently commissioned report on its first year claims it attracted 497,000 visitors, against its target of 156,000. Of these, 330,000 were visits to Margate that would not have been made if Turner Contemporary hadn’t existed.
Visitors spent £6.3 million on their trips to Margate, creating 130 jobs, while the gallery generated £7.6 million in free advertising for the town. Finally — and this is the clincher, the golden twig atop a bare Tracey Emin mattress — it says that the overall return on investment was 794 per cent.
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BEFORE GETTING TOO enthusiastic about the power of art, it is worth considering the figures a little more closely. The 794 per cent return on investment considered what the report calls ‘public sector core funding’ of £1.75 million, and not the £17.4 million construction bill or the total annual operating costs of around £2 million. Entrance is free, meaning there is a cost to the gallery of around £4 per visitor. (Nationally, this is not bad: according to The Art Newspaper, MK Gallery in Milton Keynes costs £44 a head to run.)
‘Most locals would say that they didn’t want Turner Contemporary here,’ says Gary Chadd, who works at Peter’s Fish Factory, a fish and chip shop near the gallery — but last year the business posted record sales. Nevertheless, he doesn’t want to jump to any quick conclusions, saying: ‘Margate’s been trodden into the ground for 30 years, it’ll take another 30 years to improve.’
However, he has — and this was true for the handful of local shoppers and shopkeepers I spoke to — been to every single one of Turner Contemporary’s exhibitions, even if ‘I can’t say each one was an eye-opener’. Margate-born Emin was a particular disappointment, and as he jokes about the exhibition — ‘I can go up to Northgate Street and find an abandoned mattress myself’ — his assistant joins in the conversation from behind the deep-fat fryer.
This conversation is what policy wonks might classify under ‘social regeneration’, because it illustrates that local people are engaging with art. However you feel about the concept (it’s often used in a patronising manner), it has gained popularity.
‘The arts being used as an extension of public policy in terms of rejuvenating and regenerating places, in particular major towns and cities, goes back to the late Seventies and Eighties,’ says Jonathan Banks, chief executive of public art think-tank Ixia — and this has come to include tackling social exclusion and deprivation as well as weak local economies.
The Guggenheim in Bilbao is usually cited as the archetypal art-led regeneration success story. The $100 million building, designed by Frank Gehry and completed in 1997, still attracts a million visitors a year and has been credited with transforming the fate of what in the Nineties was a grimy, industrial town in decline.
The so-called ‘Bilbao effect’ is still an inspiration to town planners, spawning projects as diverse as Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, Chicago’s Art Institute and the new Guggenheim to be built, again by Gehry, on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island.
In the UK, Turner Contemporary and the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield are the most recent additions to a not always successful tradition of state-funded art-led regeneration projects. Consider successes like Tate Liverpool (1988) and the Baltic in Gateshead (2002), as well as notable flops like the Public in West Bromwich (2009), which cost £65 million to build and attracts only 110,000 a year, and the National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield, which closed due to high debts and low visitor numbers.
The Hepworth and Turner Contemporary may well also be the last projects of their kind for a while, with Arts Council England saying it intends, given the economic climate, to focus on improving existing museums rather than building new ones.
SIMON WALLIS, THE director of the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, worked as a curator at Tate Liverpool from its opening until 2002 and says this has allowed him to appreciate the long-term effects of art-led regeneration.
‘When I was at Tate, Albert Dock was full of crappy shops, not even selling Everton or Liverpool T-shirts — they were selling Tranmere Rovers T-shirts,’ he says. ‘No disrespect to Tranmere Rovers, but this is what we were dealing with. There were gravel car parks around Tate, and it was marooned, not connected to the rest of the city. When you look at it now, it has completely transformed itself in the most remarkable ways. There are still terrible pockets of poverty, there’s still stuff to work at, but it has moved on miles.’
He feels frustrated that people (like me, I assume, though he’s far too polite to say it) keep on ‘bludgeoning’ him with questions about regeneration and when they will feel the benefits, when regeneration is a long-term process. His point that cities don’t transform overnight is sensible, but that he is so often asked these questions illustrates just how powerful the idea has become.
Illustration by Femke de Jong
THERE ARE A number of similarities between the Hepworth and Turner Contemporary. Both are David Chipperfield buildings, opened in mid-2011, and claim local links for their collections: Turner Contemporary is situated on the site of the guesthouse that JMW Turner frequented in Margate, while the Hepworth was built to house the collection of sculptures by Wakefield-born Barbara Hepworth that was gifted to the gallery.
If Tate Liverpool was often seen as a southern institution transplanted into the industrial North, more recent art-led regeneration projects are concerned with reviving more or less tenuous local connections with artists.
Hepworth was more expensive to build and run than Turner Contemporary: the building cost £35 million and annual running costs are £2.5 million. Last year the Hepworth had half a million visitors — and ‘you’d have to have the strongest bladder in the country to be using the Hepworth as a toilet stop,’ Wallis joked at a press conference. According to Wakefield Council, this generated £10 million for the local economy last year.
It appears the Hepworth will have to work harder than Turner Contemporary to ensure that money trickles down into the local economy. The Hepworth was shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize and has been designed so that the vast glass windows perfectly frame the landscape outside; one senses Chipperfield had to choose his angles carefully.
Much of Wakefield is still a bleak landscape of tower blocks and industrial warehouses; there are no shops, cafes or restaurants near the gallery to soak up the art-tourist pound. The Victorian warehouses and old mill next door will be picturesque when or if they are renovated, but are now falling into disrepair. While one nearby building has already been converted into apartments, Wakefield Council is still hoping that the footfall to the Hepworth will encourage private investors to step forward and save the rest.
How realistic is our belief in the transformative power of an art gallery? One of the most forceful arguments against art-led regeneration can be found in a 2006 Policy Exchange report (edited, interestingly, by Munira Mirza, one of Boris Johnson’s deputies), Culture Vultures: Is UK Arts Policy Killing the Arts?.
It argued that expecting art to serve government policies on economic revitalisation, social exclusion and even public health hampers art, encouraging Saying Stones-style public art projects where social worthiness trumps aesthetic and creative brilliance. Secondly, it said that many of the claims made for the regenerative benefits of art lacked evidence.
The Hepworth and Turner Contemporary have avoided the first pitfall: both are thriving, innovative cultural institutions displaying world-class art. Turner Contemporary was hosting an Alex Katz exhibition when I visited.
The Hepworth not only has its vast permanent collection to draw on, but when I arrived it was also unveiling an exhibition of Hepworth’s hospital drawings and a selection of works from the David Roberts Collection — the first time these works have been displayed in a public gallery since their purchase. Wallis spoke of how important it was to him that the gallery was run as an independent trust, allowing it to retain its autonomy and organisational integrity.
WORLD-CLASS GALLERIES aren’t cheap. It would be interesting to understand how much economic impact the £17.4 million invested in Turner Contemporary or the £35 million in the Hepworth would have had if invested in a different project — a shopping centre, new housing or a leisure centre.
Hypotheticals like this are notoriously hard to quantify, but likewise it’s empirically difficult to separate the impact of both galleries from that of the other ongoing regeneration projects. Margate is also a Mary Portas pilot town for high-street regeneration; Wakefield is investing £10 million in regenerating the Kirkgate area around the gallery and has built an £11 million leisure centre. In a recent interview with the BBC, Gehry described the Guggenheim in Bilbao as the ‘icing on the top’ of the city’s regeneration — it didn’t occur in isolation.
Wallis and Morsley were adamant that art-led regeneration is fundamentally different from other forms of regeneration: ‘We’re attracting a different kind of visitor,’ said Morsley of Turner Contemporary — the implication being, I think, that gallery-goers are more likely to frequent nice boutiques and cafes, and less likely to dress up as superheroes to vomit into their fish and chips on low-budget stag dos.
Wallis instead focused on the social side of regeneration: the ability of Hepworth to rebrand the ailing ex-mining town and reignite civic pride, the importance of art for expanding horizons and engaging local communities, art’s ability to raise the aspirations of Wakefield’s many NEETs (young people not in education, employment or training).
But while most instinctively feel that art enriches lives and is good for people, it’s hard to find much evidence that visiting an art gallery or having one built down the road is a life-changing event, or that it will raise educational attainment. The Hepworth and Turner Contemporary both run outreach programmes, but if the heart of the issue is young people’s social exclusion, surely more direct programmes work best?
The thought reminded me of a conversation I had with Jo Gibson, who works at a gift shop in Margate. I asked her about some of the abandoned shop fronts in the high street, which now have window displays installed by local artists. ‘I think they put the displays there hoping that it would help the property get let again, but that hasn’t worked, they’re still empty now,’ she says.