Big opening for down and out English seaside town

AP News
Posted: Apr 15, 2011 11:52 AM
Big opening for down and out English seaside town

In a town that has seen better days, this is a red-letter day.

For years in the English seaside town of Margate, things have shut down _ shops, hotels, the Dreamland amusement park that used to draw crowds of visitors to this brash resort.

Saturday, however, sees an opening, the launch of a 17 million pound ($28 million) art gallery that Margate hopes will restore fortunes which have declined since Britons abandoned bracing beach holidays for flights to sunnier spots.

"The social and economic regeneration of the area has begun," John Kampfner, chair of trustees of the new Turner Contemporary gallery, said Friday. "The whole atmosphere of the area has been transformed."

That's a big claim for an art gallery, but Turner Contemporary is ambitious. It is part of a plan to remake this town, one of the most deprived in England, where a vanished tourist trade has left buildings empty and high levels of unemployment. Joblessness in the poorest parts of Margate is three times the regional average.

The gallery draws on Margate's links with 19th-century artist J.M.W. Turner, who declared the skies here in England's wind-swept southeast corner "the loveliest in all Europe."

Today those magnificent skies look down on a long, sandy beach, and on a seafront pocked with dilapidated Victorian villas, shuttered shops and the boarded-up Dreamland with its skeletal rides.

Designed by David Chipperfield, the architect behind Berlin's restored Neues Museum, the new gallery aims to show Turner's works alongside those of contemporary artists from around the world. Every exhibition will include at least one piece by Turner, who painted the light-drenched land and seascapes of the region in moody oils and watercolors.

The opening exhibition includes a Turner landscape _ oddly, of a Caribbean volcano rather than of Margate _ alongside works by six living artists asked to respond to the gallery and its setting. They include California artist Russell Crotty's paper globes covered in coastal scenes and Brooklyn-based Ellen Harvey's installation "Arcadia," which includes an amusement arcade sign inspired by Dreamland.

The "art effect" is already having an impact. Artists and independent shopkeepers _ anticipating a cultural resurgence _ have begun moving into Margate's quaint but rundown Old Town, opening small galleries, cafes and vintage boutiques. Some 40 new businesses have opened in the last year.

"With art comes money," said born-and-bred Margate resident Dan Weller, 48. "I know people who have come down and opened shops _ but they're two or three years too early. They haven't generated the custom. The art gallery will bring that custom."

That, at least, is the hope, though some in Margate are skeptical, and not everyone is a fan of the new gallery. The boxy white building has been likened by some to a fish-processing plant.

Acerbic art critic Brian Sewell was scathing in the Evening Standard newspaper, calling the building "alien, brutal and bleak aggressive and threatening as that of a hyena in a sheepfold." He didn't like the art much, either.

Others hope the gallery will help transform Margate the way the Tate gallery turned sleepy seaside St. Ives in southwest England into an artistic Mecca, or the way the Guggenheim revived Spain's industrial city of Bilbao.

Margate's artistic streak continues to this day. It is the home town of Tracey Emin, one of the "Young British Artists" who shot to fame in the 1990s with provocative works including a recreation of her disheveled bed and an appliqued tent entitled "Everyone I Have Ever Slept With. Younger artists are now moving in, drawn by the area's natural beauty and cheap rents.

Regeneration groups hope to reopen Dreamland and preserve its antique rides, which include Britain's oldest roller coaster. That could once again draw vacationing families to Margate's golden sands.

"We don't just want the day trippers," said Simon Craig, who moved back to his home town last year and opened a cafe on Margate's harbor wall. "We want people to stay overnight. A holiday in Margate _ that would be great."

Turner Contemporary is one of a slew of new theaters, museums and galleries built in Britain with large dollops of public funding during the boom years that ended with 2007's credit crunch. It will also be one of the last for a while.

Hundreds of arts groups have been told their funding will be cut as the government slashes 80 billion pounds from public spending by 2015 in a bid to reduce Britain's deficit.

Businesses are struggling, too, as Britain emerges shakily from recession. It's not the ideal time to be launching such an ambitious renewal project.

"It could scarcely be worse," said Mike Hill, a cabinet member of the regional Kent County Council. "The only way is up."